The Rohingya Genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Legacy

Aung San Suu Kyi's position on the Rohingya genocide has led many to question her commitment to democracy, and more importantly, peace. Amir Dehghan argues that under her leadership, the Rohingya crisis and human rights abuses have continued unabated.


For 15 years, political activist Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for her opposition to Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Her detention gained her many followers across the West, especially in the United States government. She was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

Tides turned in 2010, when the military government released Suu Kyi from house arrest. The international community welcomed her release, with former President Barack Obama stating, “She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world. The United States welcomes her long overdue release.” During a historic trip to Myanmar in 2012, Obama visited Suu Kyi and praised her as an icon of democracy.

In a stunning victory in 2015, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the majority of seats in the country’s parliament. With Myanmar’s constitution forbiding anyone with foreign relatives from becoming president, a new post, known as State Counselor, was created in Myanmar’s government to allow Suu Kyi to have an active role in the country’s leadership since her late husband was a British national. At the time, the international community welcomed, what they thought, would be a new democratic era in Myanmar’s militaristic past. But that was not the case, as the persecution of a minority group, caught the attention of people across the globe- the Rohingya.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority ethnic group and most of the 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar lived in the Rakhine State. However, the government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, arguing that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Even though, the Rohingya have their own language and culture, they have actually been living in the region, at the very least since the country’s independence. But they have been facing persecution for decades.

According to a United Nations report that was published earlier this week, Myanmar’s military has been committing “the gravest crimes under international law” towards the Rohingya. The report details horrific crimes of infants being snatched from their mothers and children being shot or set on fire. Women were raped by soldiers and some were left to die; people were locked into their homes and set on fire. More than 43,000 Rohingya have been deemed missing, and presumed dead. The conflict and attacks by the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar military, has been fueled in part by the rhetoric of the Ma Ba Tha, the hardline Buddhist nationalists that have been stoking Islamophobia throughout Myanmar.

Since August 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed the border into Bangladesh, where many have been living in refugee camps. The UN estimates that 960,000 Rohingya refugees are currently in Bangladesh, but the Bangladeshi government argues that the number is over one million.

So, what does Aung San Suu Kyi, the so-called icon of democracy, have to say about the Rohingya? Almost eight years after her release, and subsequent electoral victory, Suu Kyi has faced widespread criticism for remaining silent on the massacre happening against the Rohingya. After Suu Kyi’s NLD came to power, there were hopes that she would address the situation in Rakhine State. But unfortunately, the situation has only gotten worse. Suu Kyi has repeatedly denied that an ethnic cleansing is even taking place, with human rights organizations and the United Nations, among various other organization arguing the exact opposite. After a BBC reporter asked her in 2017 on why she has refused to speak out, her response was “What do you mean by speaking out?” Her government has also faced criticism for refusing to cooperate with the UN on a fact-finding mission in the Rakhine State.

Several fellow Nobel laureates have criticized Suu Kyi for remaining silent. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel laureate, argued that Suu Kyi’s silence in the face of the massacre makes her complicit, and she should be held personally responsible. Malala Yousafzai, another outspoken Nobel laureate, has urged Suu Kyi to speak out and for other countries to join Bangladesh in giving refuge to the Rohingya. Desmond Tutu also published an open letter asking Suu Kyi to help the Rohingya.

In November 2017, as a result of her silence and refusal to cooperate with UN investigators, Suu Kyi was stripped of the Freedom of Oxford Award. In March 2018, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum rescinded the Elie Wiesel Award that was presented to her in 2012. Just last month, Suu Kyi was stripped of the Freedom of Edinburgh Award. The Nobel Committee has explained that Suu Kyi will not be stripped of the Nobel Peace Prize, since her fight for democracy was recognized back in 1991.

In a further setback to democracy in Myanmar, two journalists from Reuters, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Ooo, were sentenced to seven years in prison early this month for violating the country’s old Official Secrets Act. But fellow journalists, news organizations, and human rights groups believe they were sentenced for documenting the mass killings happening in the Rakhine State against the Rohingya. Shortly after their arrest in December 2017, Reuters published the two journalists’ report, which documented the mass atrocities being carried out against the Rohingya by the Tatmadaw. Unsurprisingly, Suu Kyi defended the court’s verdict and stated, “They were not jailed because they were journalists…the court has decided that they broke the Officials Secrets Act.”

Some may argue that Suu Kyi does not have control over the military’s actions and she cannot do much, but that claim fails to hold in the face of the mass atrocities being committed against the Rohingya. As someone who spent years fighting for democracy, Suu Kyi has a duty to speak out against the systematic genocide that is taking place under her watch. Nobody is stopping her from cooperating with the UN and human rights groups, rather her refusal is her own.

The international community cannot be silence on the genocide that is taking place against the Rohingya. Last month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on four military and police commanders, accusing them of being complicit in ethnic cleansing.  The European Union and Canada have also imposed sanctions on seven individuals and Australia is considering sanctions on military generals as well.  In addition, Facebook announced last month that they have removed 52 pages in Myanmar that incited violence against the Rohingya. The social media platform also went so far as suspending 18 accounts, including that of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.  Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, announced this week that she is opening an inquiry on the atrocity that is taking place.

All of these steps are welcome, but it is important for those who are directly responsible for the genocide to be prosecuted. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi has failed the Rohingya people, the international community should not.

Amir Dehghan recently received his Master’s of Science degree in Global Affairs from New York University.  

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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