In 2006 I received a phone call from a senior Burmese democracy activist in exile. In five years at Burma Campaign UK it was the first time he had called me. His call was not to discuss human rights or international campaigning; it was to warn Burma Campaign UK against working for Rohingya human rights.
I explained that Burma Campaign UK was established to promote human rights for everyone in and from Burma, and that we would continue to support human rights for the Rohingya. He told me that the issue was difficult and sensitive, and we should not work on it. In the end, I told him that even if a National League for Democracy (NLD) government were in power, if the Rohingya were still having their human rights violated we would campaign to that NLD government. There was a long silence down the line.
At the time, perhaps naively, we never dreamed that such a thing would come to pass. Last week it did. We delivered a petition to the Burmese embassy in London calling on the NLD-led government in Burma to take action to protect human rights for the Rohingya. It was addressed to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
We left the embassy, walking past the pavement where I must have attended more than a hundred demonstrations for human rights and democracy in Burma in the past 20 years – the same pavement where we stood on Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday every year while she was in detention; the same pavement where once Burman, Karen, Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Mon, Chin, Rakhine, Rohingya (yes Rohingya) and other ethnic people in exile stood side by side, even hand in hand, demanding the release of Suu Kyi and freedom for their country.
Our petition last week had four key calls, which should be no-brainers for any government committed to human rights: take action on hate speech; lift restrictions on aid so that people who need it can receive it; repeal or reform the 1982 Citizenship Law which discriminates against the Rohingya and does not comply with international law; and support a UN investigation into human rights violations and the situation in Arakan State.
We are still being told that the situation is difficult and sensitive. This is used as an excuse for caution and inaction. But as the human rights situation for the Rohingya gets even worse under the new NLD-led government, it is becoming clearer that the approach of the NLD and the international community is an abject failure which is costing lives and causing immense suffering.
No, there is no magic bullet; and yes, the situation is complicated. There are underlying issues which may take generations to resolve. But every journey starts with a single step. There are steps that can be taken now to start the process of building long-term solutions. And there are other steps which can be taken now which will have an immediate short-term positive impact.
Lifting the restrictions on aid is one of these. There is no justification for restricting aid to people in need, but this is what Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has been doing. Not just with the new almost blanket ban on aid, but even before the current crisis, severe restrictions on aid were kept in place. These restrictions led to loss of life, immense suffering, and denial of education to thousands of children.
Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly talks about the rule of law, but the 1982 Citizenship Law does not comply with international law and Burma’s treaty obligations. Instead of repealing or reforming it, she has made renewed efforts to fully implement it. This law will have to be reformed. There is no getting around it. There is unlikely to be a better time than now, with a fresh electoral mandate, and (rightly or wrongly) Aung San Suu Kyi having an iron grip over her party, government and parliament. It may be an unpopular move but it is one that has to be taken. Delay is a greater risk. Every year there is a new crisis, and in the long term this will do more harm to her government, let alone prolong so much suffering. True, Aung San Suu Kyi has made things much harder for herself by failing to use her moral leadership and immense popularity to challenge the prejudice against Rohingya and Muslims. Instead she has allowed it to be stirred up to an ever higher frenzy.
Which brings us to hate speech, which she has also failed to tackle. We have seen a spate of arrests of journalists or activists who write articles or post on social media things the government does not like, but those spouting hatred and inciting and organising hatred and violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims are allowed to continue to do so freely.
The NLD-led government may not have constitutional control over the military and security forces, but it does have moral authority to speak out against human rights violations taking place. What no-one expected is for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD-led government to act as willing human shields for the military, denying abuses are taking place and defending their actions.
Establishing the Arakan Commission chaired by Kofi Annan was one small step in the right direction, but its mandate is limited and there is no guarantee that when it does finally report next summer its recommendations will be accepted. It has left too many issues unaddressed. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t need a year-long investigation to know blocking aid to people in need is wrong. Establishing the Commission should have been one of many bold steps. This crisis is too serious; a ‘softly softly’ approach isn’t working. In such a volatile situation, time is a luxury she does not have.
It is hard to understand the current thinking of Aung San Suu Kyi on this issue. It cannot be that she believes the propaganda from her own government; there is too much evidence to the contrary.
The argument that she has to tread carefully to avoid upsetting the military generals and present them an excuse to retake power is hollow. The entire reform process has been their plan, on their terms and the situation now is what they want. They have as much to lose as anyone if they resume direct control. Aung San Suu Kyi was not afraid of crossing one of their main red lines, making herself effective President by creating the State Counsellor post. In any case, if they want to retake direct power they can do so at any time, manufacturing any excuse.
The argument that taking steps to improve rights for the Rohingya could trigger unrest and further violence also makes little sense. If she was worried about this, she could start to tackle hate speech, tackling those who are stirring up hatred in the first place. She has chosen not to do so. And as we are seeing now, failing to act is not a solution either.
Many people assumed that the reason Aung San Suu Kyi was previously evasive and virtually silent on abuses against the Rohingya and other Muslims was an electoral calculation. That is in fact accusing her of being pretty cold and calculating, deciding that winning the election was more important than trying to defend a minority facing severe persecution. The election result demonstrated that if this was her calculation, it was unnecessary anyway. Her silence didn’t stop Thein Sein’s government and allies such as Ma Ba Tha relentlessly branding the NLD as pro-Muslim. The NLD still won an overwhelming majority and could have lost a significant percentage of votes and still won.
Some suggest that privately she shares the same prejudice against Rohingya and Muslims as much of Burmese society. Even if true, that’s very different from being prepared to first tolerate widespread human rights violations, to now denying they are taking place, and defending and even praising those committing them.
Some people still argue today that she is just being sensitive to the prejudice in society, and has to tread carefully. That may sound reasonable but the logic of that argument is to effectively accuse her of being willing to accept the killing of Rohingya children and rape of dozens of women as being acceptable for the greater good. Can we really believe that about her?
Aung San Suu Kyi has cited Mahatma Gandhi as a source of inspiration. He is famous for his struggle against British colonial rule and his hunger strikes. In fact, he went on hunger strike more often against the actions of his own supporters than he did against British rule. He was willing to challenge their actions and prejudice, even if it upset his own supporters. To date, Aung San Suu Kyi appears unwilling to do the same.
I am constantly being asked why Aung San Suu Kyi is doing what she is doing. Not just on the Rohingya, but also regarding continuing attacks against ethnic people in Shan and Kachin states, keeping political prisoners in jail, and many other issues. I can’t give an answer. It doesn’t make sense, either morally or politically. Yes, some issues will take time to resolve, while others can be acted upon now, but are not. I am sure she has her reasons, but the problem is – she isn’t saying what they are.
Since 2012 she has had a policy of granting virtually no interviews with media. Normally, the only interviews she does are with journalists on foreign visits, journalists who usually have no expertise on Burma. The few interviews she has done in Burma have been short, and often questions have to be sent in advance before permission is given. At press conferences she is evasive.
So we are left with a choice. Do we just have blind faith that she is doing the right thing even when it appears she isn’t? Or do we act?
At Burma Campaign UK we have decided to act. We were set up to promote human rights in Burma, and that’s what we’ll do, regardless of who is running the government. It may upset many people in Burma, especially as we are advocating for the Rohingya, but in the face of horrific human rights violations, we have to look at effective ways to have an impact, even if it makes us unpopular with some people in Burma and some of our own supporters.
We won’t just hope she will change her mind, we’ll do what we can to persuade her to change her mind. Because at the end of the day, she has more ability than anyone else in Burma to resolve this issue. No one else in Burma comes close to having the respect and authority she does. Who else could begin to change the attitudes of society, challenge prejudice, and push through the legal changes which are needed? There is simply no-one else in the country who has as much chance as she does of starting to resolve the Rohingya issue.
At the moment she is being criticised as part of the problem, but it may be she is the only one who could bring about a solution.
Mark Farmaner is the director of Burma Campaign UK
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect DVB editorial policy.