The Cleansing of Rakhine: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Failure of Leadership

On Myanmar's crimes against humanity

Politics Features Aung San Suu Kyi
The Cleansing of Rakhine: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Failure of Leadership

The government of Myanmar is currently carrying out the early stages of an ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, an ethnic group that lives in Rakhine Province. Already one of the most oppressed people in the world, the Muslim minority Rohingya have been denied freedom of movement, freedom of opportunity, and are considered non-citizens in their own country. They have been herded into settlement lands. Apartheid, in other words.

In early October, three police posts were attacked, in a coordinated assault. Nine officers were killed. Several days of fighting followed. The attacks were tied back to a few of the Rohingya. The government is using this incident as an excuse to go on a rampage of wild oppression, and it is gruesome to watch. Sexual assault, violent sprees, fifteen hundred buildings burned—maybe more.

What we are witnessing now is a pogrom. The most remarkable fact of all is that the leader of the country—a woman beloved by the West, who won a Nobel Peace Prize—is doing very little.


Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a Southeast Asian country, squeezed between Bangladesh and India to the west, Thailand to the east, and China to the north. It is majority-Buddhist and made up of 136 ethnic groups. Of those, 135 are recognized by the government. The 136th are the Rohingya. They number 1.1 million souls, and are despised as outsiders.

They are accused of being recent arrivals in the land of Myanmar, of being nationals of Bangladesh. But this is not true; the Rohingya have been there at least since the 15th century, and we have accounts of their presence in the 18th century. As Johnston and Neelakantan point out in Time magazine, “the Rohingya have never been a radicalized population, and the majority have eschewed violence, seeing it as counterproductive to improving their lot.” The current goal of the government is to squeeze them until they die or move west.

Why? It is partially their religion, Islam, but it has more to do with ethnicity. After all, there are other mosques in other parts of the country that are not being destroyed or burned. Part of the reason for this has to do with the recent history of Myanmar. A post-colonial society, the Burmese subscribe to a weird ethno-nationalism which encourages xenophobia and drives extremist Buddhist priests to denounce the Rohingya.

Since the end of colonialism, Burma has been ruled mostly by its military. “Ruled” is a light term to describe how the military (called the Tatmadaw) ran the country. Myanmar under the Tatmadaw was one of the most repressive nations in the world: up there with North Korea. It had, and has, one of the worst human rights records in history. The country was condemned thoroughly by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and every other human rights organization worth a gallon-jug of warm spit. If there’s a basic human right, the government’s violated it. Slavery, child labor, sexual violence, human trafficking: they’re all on the table.

One of the guys who originally led the country to independence was named Aung San. He was killed by a paramilitary group a long time ago. He’s still considered Father of the Nation. His daughter is named Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK).

ASSK grew up and eventually went to London for school. She married an Englishman and lived her life in the U.K. In 1988, her mother got ill, so she went back to Myanmar. Saw her country in a sorry state. She decides enough is enough, founds a party, runs, and wins the election of 1990. The Tatmadaw wouldn’t recognize the result. As Thant Myint-U wrote:

Members of the army under Ne Win began to see themselves as Burma’s saviors — from foreign aggression and internal fragmentation — looking backward to the glory days of Burmese warrior-kings and tapping into Burmese nationalism’s more xenophobic strains.

The generals couldn’t kill her, so they placed her under house arrest for fifteen years. So there she stayed, for a decade and a half, in a colonial-era house in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), staring out at Inya Lake. The junta offered her a chance to leave the country to be with her husband and sons, but she wouldn’t do it:

“As a mother, the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons, but I was always aware of the fact that others had given up more than me. I never forget that my colleagues who are in prison suffer not only physically, but mentally for their families who have no security outside- in the larger prison of Burma under authoritarian rule.”

During her house arrest, ASSK was considered a secular saint, and continued nonviolent resistance in the face of incredible oppression. The junta were frankly frightened of her. In 2010, the generals decided to give up a bit of their power—ASSK was released from her imprisonment, and met with monks, rebels, nobles; anyone who had been opposed to the regime, which in Myanmar, meant practically everyone.

The country held elections. ASSK became leader about a year ago. Although a legal triviality prohibits her from becoming President, as Prime Minister and boss of the largest party, she is the de facto leader of the country.


Myanmar opened the door. But as her biographer Peter Popham described, “with greater openness, long-suppressed prejudices have burst into the open: intolerant Buddhist preachers have whipped up the latent hostility of the Burmese against people of other races and beliefs, especially the Muslim Rohingya.”

Human Rights Watch isn’t allowed into Rakhine. Very few aid workers are. John McKissick, who runs the UN’s refugee agency, said ASSK’s government seeks the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya. Human Rights Watch says the government is engaged in crimes against humanity. Nick Robins-Early reports:

Rohingya villagers told rights groups that the army has used helicopter gunships to fire on civilians. They also say soldiers have set fire to their homes. Multiple Rohingya women also reported to Reuters in late October that soldiers raped or sexually assaulted dozens of villagers at gunpoint during the military advance. Thousands of Rohingya who attempted to flee to Bangladesh in recent months have been turned back, according to Amnesty International.

If you’re curious how genocide works, this is a pretty good start for it: women, men, and children are deprived of their citizenship, made strangers to their own country, as if they were visitors who’d overstayed their welcome. The government has taken their name. ASSK does not refer to them by their actual name, the Rohingya.

That would give them too much power, you understand.

We are left with the strange fact that ASSK hasn’t denounced the ethnic cleansing.
Some writers, such as Lex Rieffel from Brookings Institute, are writing in to newspapers, claiming that ASSK is trying to consolidate power. She has to make sure her position is strong, so she can’t say anything. Or so the story goes. But this is idiotic. She has vast influence in the country. If she stood up against the slaughter, then she would be able to change the direction of the nation.

The truth is that ASSK does not care about the Rohingya, or violence against them in Rakhine state. She is only a moral giant by the standards of the West—in other words, the standards of people who use drones and invade Iraq. Our ethics are not particularly high, in other words. She is not a saint, but the representative of the majority of Myanmar. She is their voice. The key word to focus on in that sentence is their. She does not speak for the Rohingya.

Her compassion stops at that border. Her decency ends there. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in Time magazine, “Instead, as her country imposes on the Rohingya Muslim minority an apartheid that would have made white supremacists in South Africa blush, she bites her tongue.” Where is her speech of human rights now? What about the rights of the weaker party? Rather, we have silence. We have denial. Instead of condemnation, we have empty wheezes about the rule of law.

The sad fact is, even with the return of ASSK to power, the Burmese state is a bent twig grown full-up into a warped tree: the leadership of the country consists of a crooked band run by a crooked leader. The basic test of a state is whether it can or cannot protect its citizens. If a state cannot do that, it has no moral authority.

The rule of law? There is a higher law. There is a higher rule. If the law of Myanmar says that the Rohingya deserve to be expelled from their homeland, then the law is a lie, and so is she.

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