Burmese politician and international celebrity Aung San Suu Kyi flew into Sydney yesterday to begin a brief tour of Australia, during which time she will meet the prime minister and other members of the government.
If her recent visits to Europe are anything to go by, the Nobel laureate’s arrival will be a triumphal affair involving inevitable cheering crowds, mutual congratulation and much rhetoric about shared values on display. Politicians will no doubt wish to associate themselves with her image and bask in her fading effulgence, while ordinary Australians will very probably receive the heroine of Burma’s democracy movement with open arms.
Yet for all the deserved plaudits she will receive from her hosts, the sheer spectacle of her visit may amount to an unhelpful distraction from extremely serious abuses taking place in her homeland; indeed it may even seem unwarranted, given that the smiling icon has betrayed some of her country’s most vulnerable people.
The Rohingya of west Burma are the most needy, despised and endangered ethnic group in the country. The Muslim minority is stateless (unwanted by both Burma and Bangladesh), impoverished and has been subjected to at least three brutal pogroms over the past 40 years, two of them directly at the hands of Burmese government forces. The latest bout of extreme anti-Rohingya persecution in the country’s restive Rakhine state, where the group is remains subjected to ethnic cleansing, endures to this day.
When asked about the plight of Muslims during her recent visit to the UK, Suu Kyi told BBC journalist Mishal Husain that there was “no ethnic cleansing” and equivocated about the suffering of both Buddhists and Muslims in a manner that at least one other writer found “chilling” to watch.
For the record, there is no parity. Muslims in general, and the Rohingya in particular, have suffered far more from inter-religious clashes over the past two years, during which time children in Meiktila, Central Burma, were burnt alive and well over 100,000 Rohingya have been confined to squalid camps where they are systematically denied aid and where disease is rife. There have been organised attacks on the minority that amounted to crimes against humanity committed by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, whom Suu Kyi is keen to remind us are suffering too – from fear, not mass slaughter.
I have visited the Rohingya IDP camps twice this year, and been informed about a variety of abuses perpetrated against the inmates by police and government forces since June last year, including rape and murder. Human rights reports confirm these allegations. Conditions in parts of the camps, as well as the emotional torment endured by its inhabitants, were wrenching to witness.
The Rohingya are edging closer to a final disaster that could amount, in the eyes of several authoritative analysts, to genocide. Yet “mother Suu” remains virtually silent, no doubt in part because the recognition of this people’s plight would amount to political suicide in a country where racial prejudices run deep. The Rakhines have demonstrated their position on the Rohingya with total clarity: through mob attacks and arson; their hatred of the Rohingya has been evident for decades.
If her failure on the Rohingya issue isn’t bad enough, Suu Kyi has also neglected to defend poor Burmese farmers in Sagaing Division in the wake of a violent, government-backed crackdown on protests at the Letpadaung Copper mine there last year, in which campaigning monks were allegedly burnt in their sleep by police. Having headed an official panel which produced a report recommending that the project should go ahead, she lectured protesters on the folly of their resistance against the multi-billion-dollar, Chinese-backed project which will result in a loss of livelihood, displacement and serious water pollution for local people. The panel also effectively endorsed police impunity, despite the use of white phosphorous against peaceful protesters.
By contrast, Suu Kyi has been outspoken on the need to change the national constitution, which was authored by the old military elite, and widely-regarded as having been designed to prevent her from occupying the office of president. She will be sure to ask for Australia’s support in pressuring Burma to change the charter.
It seems impossible to resist the impression that “the Lady” is a paragon no more – and certainly no human rights defender, as she herself reminded journalists recently. Rather, she has begun to act like any other politician: single-mindedly pursuing an agenda, making expedient decisions with one eye on electoral politics, the other on kingmakers in Naypyidaw and the domestic political economy.
Australians welcoming her today would do well to remember this, even as media celebration reigns and the lonely, deserted Rohingya stumble toward their collective grave.