By Vineeta Pandey
02 October 2017
Both, Suu Kyi and Sheikh Hasina have a lot in common. Yet, both are viewed differently by the world. While Hasina is seen as a leader with compassion, Suu Kyi is viewed as an oppressor
Two women. Close neighbours. Both powerful and influential. Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Sheikh Hasina are the women under focus of the world at present.
Despite having too many things in common they are different in several ways. They are both Prime Ministers (Suu Kyi’s post is equivalent to the Prime Minister in Myanmar). Both are part of legendary families that have contributed in the fight for independence of their countries. Incidentally, both Suu Kyi and Hasina’s fathers — General Aung San and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — were brutally assassinated, and their families almost wiped out. The two also have a deep connect with India — Suu Kyi has done her schooling and college from India, apart from being a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, while Hasina had taken refuge in India following the assassination of her father, mother and three brothers.
Despite so much in common, these two women are being viewed by the world in two different ways. Having opened the doors for the fleeing Rohingyas, Hasina is seen as a leader with compassion, and a strong Prime Minister, while Suu Kyi is being viewed as an oppressor with questions being raised over her powers in the new democratic order in Myanmar. Having faced a lot of struggle herself in her fight for democracy against the military junta in Myanmar, Suu Kyi is aware of the risks of confronting the Myanmar Army, which is accused of ethnic cleansing of ‘Bengali speaking’ Rohingyas from the Buddhist dominant country. Suu Kyi herself is a Buddhist.
Hasina, on the other hand, has given shelter to these Rohingyas fleeing violence in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. In fact, Bangladesh alone has taken the burden of nearly 4.3 lakh refugees in the last few weeks who are fleeing through the roads, thick jungles, rivers and even through the Bay of Bengal. Prior to the present influx, nearly four lakh refugees have already taken shelter in Bangladesh from time to time, while many have fled to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia and other countries. But the biggest hit has been taken by Bangladesh that borders Myanmar.
Despite her economy being under stress due to recent floods and now the present influx, Hasina has not shown any signs of panic or distress. Her diplomats say: “We cannot throw them (Rohingyas) in the sea”, a view guided by Hasina’s own sympathetic attitude towards the refugees. With floods impacting nearly one-third of Bangladesh’s population, the country had to import rice for the first time in many years to feed its own people. The high number of refugees has put additional burden on the state. Humanitarian aids from India and the United Nations (UN) can only be temporary help. Hasina wants the international community to pressurise Myanmar to take back its people.
After initial hesitation, Hasina opened the borders for the Rohingya men, women and several orphaned children. Bangladesh diplomats say they are virtually running a day care centre at the refugee camps for the children between six month and six years.
So overwhelmed are the Rohingya refugees that they are viewing Hasina as a ‘hero’. No wonder a Rohingya Muslim refugee woman who delivered her baby girl in the refugee camp of Bangladesh decided to name her ‘Sheikh Hasina’ to highlight the fact that the child could come to life only because of the humanitarian assistance provided by Hasina.
Both, Suu Kyi and Hasina have made speeches recently. But while Suu Kyi avoided going to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) or touching the sensitive Rohingya issue directly, Hasina stood up at the UNGA and made an emotional speech to drum up support for the Rohingya cause.
Hasina urged Myanmar to end violence and ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State immediately while giving out a five-point proposal. She also called upon the UN and the international community to take immediate and effective measures for a permanent solution to the protracted Rohingya crisis while urging the UN Secretary General, António Guterres to immediately send a fact-finding mission to Myanmar, and creating ‘safe zones’ inside Myanmar under the UN supervision for protection of civilians irrespective of religion and ethnicity. She also urged to ensure sustainable return of all forcibly displaced Rohingyas in Bangladesh to their homes in Myanmar and demanded immediate implementation of all recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission report.
Starting her speech, Hasina said she had come to the UNGA with a heavy heart. “I have come here just after seeing the hungry, distressed and hopeless Rohingyas from Myanmar who took shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This forcibly-displaced people of Myanmar are fleeing an ‘ethnic cleansing’ in their own country where they have been living for centuries,” she said. Hasina said she feels the pain of Rohingya refugees as she, along with her younger sister, had been a refugee for six years after her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and almost all members of her family were assassinated in 1975.
Having been a target of a number of terrorist attacks, Hasina said that she personally empathises with the victims of terrorism and appreciates their need for protection.
Compared to this, Suu Kyi’s statements and attitude towards the Rohingya crisis appear to be unsympathetic and have come under severe criticism from the international community. Her failure to reign in the violence against the Rohingyas has exposed her as a weak world leader resulting in a demand for Suu Kyi to rescind the Nobel Peace prize.
Suu Kyi avoided going to the UNGA for fear of international scrutiny and criticism, and the possibility of being forced into committing herself to the Rohingyas who are being driven away due to violence from Myanmar Army and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants fighting with the military. She, however, made a statement at home which neither offered a solution nor gave any assurances.
All she had to say was: “Myanmar feels deeply for suffering of all groups in Rakhine…We will take all measures mentioned to ensure that there is peace in Rakhine and Myanmar as a whole. We will also investigate why so many young Muslims are crossing the border and going to Bangladesh. We will ask them why they are doing this?” She said Myanmar was ready to verify the status of the 4.1 Lakh Rohingyas who fled violence in the last month to aid the return of those ‘eligible’ for resettlement. Her indications are clear that these Bengali speaking Muslim Rohingyas have a Bangladesh connect and that they should go to their country of origin.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, said among the fleeing Rohingyas there are Hindus, and Christians apart from Muslims. Dhaka also agreed for the verification process, as suggested by the Kofi Annan Commission, to ascertain the ethnicity of the Bangladeshi Rohingyas and is willing to take those who belong to it.
There is one more interesting aspect worth comparing between Hasina and Suu Kyi. While Suu Kyi continues to be playing in the hands of her Army, which is accused of atrocities on the Rohingyas, Hasina has shown that she has a tight grip on her security forces and is effectively using her Army to oversee refugee relief work.
In this military versus militants fight, innocent civilians are being killed and thrown out of their country. A woman watches silently. Rather heartlessly. Another opens arms for them. With a big heart. Tale of two women.
Vineeta Pandey is a Senior Editor, The Pioneer