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Aung San Suu Kyi’s horrifying betrayal of the Rohingya

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By TEE NGUGI
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Amnesty International has withdrawn its Ambassador of Conscience award to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The award is the rights body’s highest honour. Recipients include Nelson Mandela.

Amnesty International’s letter to Aung Suu Kyi says: “We are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defence of human rights.”

This withdrawal is only one of many. Other institutions that had honoured Suu Kyi for her human-rights work have withdrawn their honorary citizenships, fellowships, freedoms of the city etc. There is now pressure on the Nobel Committee to withdraw the Nobel Peace Prize it awarded her in 1991.

These withdrawals, real and potential, come on the heels of criticism by the international human-rights community of Suu Kyi’s conduct since becoming de facto leader of Myanmar in 2006.

Religious strife between the Rohingya Muslim minority and the majority Buddhists had been a permanent feature of Myanmar’s history since Independence. But about the time Aung Suu Kyi assumed de facto leadership of the country, the erstwhile military dictatorship embarked on systematic killing, torture, and cleansing of the country of the Rohingya.

Since then, thousands have fled the country of their birth to live wretched lives in Bangladesh, a country that only just tolerates them. Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, sees the largest refugee camp in the world on its soil as pressure on poor social amenities, and scarce water and land resources.

The Rohingya are caught between a refuge that doesn’t want them and a motherland that doesn’t either. They are truly a stateless community.

The flight from Myanmar was on an epic scale and mirrored the biblical exodus of a whole community from Egypt. Children carried their feeble grandmothers on their backs, the sick were ferried in sacks, and the injured hobbled on sticks over unforgiving terrain.

The refugee camps turned out to be gateways to hell. Children born in the camps suffer from crippling diseases of poverty such as malnutrition. Few children go to school. Female children are kidnapped and trafficked to places as far away as India, where they are sold as sex slaves. A whole generation of Rohingya is certain to be lost.

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At her Nobel lecture, when she was finally able to travel to Norway, Suu Kyi delivered a moving, personal defence of human rights not only in Myanmar but around the world. She conceded that humanity would never absolutely eliminate evil, but it was the duty of humanity to keep fighting it.

She recalled a letter written by a young American soldier before he was killed in the First World War. In the letter, he forecast that he would be killed fighting to take an unnamed hill. Aung Suu Kyi wondered: For what, this snuffing out of lives even before they had blossomed? Then she recalled a trip to Thailand before her detention, where she visited refugees from Burma. The refugees cried out to her: “Don’t forget our plight, don’t forget we also belong to your world…”

Then she referenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a powerful argument for human dignity and human freedom, and a call to arms for defence of human rights around the world.

And yet what has happened to the Rohingya violates every one of the values she referenced in her Nobel lecture. There has been torture, killings, mass rapes and disappearances. And then there is the ethnic cleansing.

Out of a population of a million Rohingya in Myanmar, 700,000 have been cleansed from the land. The Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court identified all these crimes as crimes against humanity.

No one has suggested that Aung Suu Kyi is directly or even indirectly linked to these crimes.

But direct or indirect responsibility is not the basis on which the international human-rights community has indicted her. It is because she has consistently refused to speak out against these atrocities. She has remained silent, deflected the issue or denied the extent of the crimes.

The inference is that the human rights she fought so long and so hard for were not for the Rohingya. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to hear the Rohingya crying out to her and the world: “Don’t forget our plight, don’t forget we also belong to your world.”

Her silence and denials can only be construed to mean that the Rohingya do not belong to her Buddhist world and are not deserving of human rights.

Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi. E-mail: [email protected]

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