Much has been made regarding the refusal of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the “textbook ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslims.
She has stood defiant, even earning a reprimand from fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Petitions are filling up on the internet, calling for her to be stripped of her prize, while others have lamented her not living up to the prize. Even the Western media has taken notice. Nick Kristoff from the New York Times wrote of “A Nobel Peace Prize winner’s shame” and the Financial Times ran an opinion titled: “Aung San Suu Kyi, a tarnished icon with a fading legacy”.
Since August 25, at least 1 000 Rohingya, living in the Rakhine state in Myanmar, have been massacred. Another 313 000, more than 80 percent of whom are women and children, have scampered, crawled and paddled across vast swamplands that make up the border with neighbouring Bangladesh.
Despite the outrage across the mainly Muslim public around the world, little condemnation has been sounded from the higher echelons of global power.
A lot of the blame has fallen on Suu Kyi. First, she was seen as silent and unwilling to condemn the violence that erupted in 2012. Now, through unbearably hollow statements, it has become clear she is complicit in the massacre. As more and more images of the grotesque brutality have come to light, the pressure has mounted on the 1991 laureate Suu Kyi to do something to halt the bloodshed.
No one seems to be asking: If Suu Kyi condemned these attacks, would it signal the end of barbarity? Unlikely. The Rohingya lost their citizenship in 1982, their children were not given birth certificates after 1991; they are stateless, persecuted, routinely abused.
Evidently, this is a story of a marginalised people who are facing genocide; not about Suu Kyi. How did the discussion even turn into protecting the dignity of a prize?
If we move beyond the mythology of Suu Kyi, Myanmar is in no way a functioning democracy. The defence, border and interior ministries are under the military and 25 percent of parliamentary seats are reserved for the army (which means upgrading the constitution is unlikely). In other words, the elevation of Suu Kyi as a saviour, by Western countries, has allowed the blame to fall at her feet; the multiple players, governments and companies are almost blameless.
When Barack Obama signed away sanctions on Myanmar last year, he was aware of the social and political project unfolding, and its impact on a minority like the Rohingya.
Then there is the little fact that Suu Kyi, as a darling of the West, was always likely to have been created in the image of Western pragmatism. She “knows” that if she condemns the military, it will sever ties with the military and undermine her influence. This is not to say that Suu Kyi is not accountable as an icon of peace and as Myanmar leader. This is not an attempt to empathise with her daunting task of navigating and managing the army’s fraught transition into a servant of democracy.
But to go on castigating Suu Kyi in the face of silence from leaders of powerful nations is to pretend that this is not how democracies are made and operate. Setting up the Western liberal democratic project involves the maintenance of the status quo, the elevation of political elites and the “cleaning up of undesirables”. The transition to democracy does not mean the absence of violence. It is the type of violence that so many of us “accept” every day.
The violence against the Rohingya might be driven by anti-Muslim drivel, but the motivation is economic. It is the same logic that allows the “Red Ants” (the security and eviction company) to evict people from their homes and dismantle lives in the inner cities, calling them “illegal”. When the establishment wants to get rid of you, there is an endless supply of legitimate terms to call you. I am not saying those in the inner city of Johannesburg are like the Rohingya, but it is the same reasoning and logic that allow the violence to be seen as legitimate.
Blaming Suu Kyi as if she stands between good and evil (she doesn’t) given her time under house arrest (fighting for Western liberal democracy) and given the plaudits as a Nobel Peace Prize winner (an award better known as a sham) is another manifestation of a lie sold to all of us every day. The superhero myth dismantles our role in violence pitted against others and disempowers our ability to see past the imagery of heroes and villains.
Last week Suu Kyi said her government was committed to defending the human rights of “all the people of Rakhine”. This, after an attack by ragtag Rohingya militia on Myanmar security forces prompted more than 1 000 deaths and 300 000 displacements?
It is this type of false equivalence that has been used to justify attacks on the people of Gaza, and recently by Donald Trump to defer from naming the villains at Charlottesville. This is the mainstream, centrist pragmatic liberalism that has polluted justice and equality. In the school of Western liberal democrats, Suu Kyi was taught well.
Let’s face it: most radical leaders and thinkers of the past century have either lost their lives under dubious circumstances, spent their days in a can on “terror” charges or have been isolated forever.
Those who have “made it”, have “compromised” and “assimilated” their economic or political agendas. History will remember them as just another political disappointment. Memories of Rwanda and Srebrenica might reverberate, but the world sits still, watching another would-be genocide unfold.
- Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founding editor of The Daily Vox