Where’s Aung San Suu Kyi When Burma Needs Her?

It’s time for Aung San Suu Kyi to stand up for her country’s persecuted Rohingya minority.

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This month, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration made two of its strongest statements yet about what experts call the “early warning signs of genocide” in Burma. Obama said last week that Burma must end discrimination against the country’s beleaguered Rohingya minority to succeed in its democratic transition. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard followed up with an even sterner admonition: “We would love to see all Burmese leaders speak up on human rights and to realize that they should help the Rohingya,” she said. Her words to “all Burmese leaders” are pointedly aimed at democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose stance on the Rohingya has ranged from troubling to nonexistent.

The Nobel Prize winner — and prospective presidential candidate — is seen around the world as a beacon of hope for Burma, but the Rohingya crisis has cast a dark shadow over her democratic credentials. As thousands of Rohingya flee to Burma’s democratic neighbors — Indonesia, Malaysia, and even earthquake-ravaged Nepal — the international community cannot ignore their persecution. They have suffered violent pogroms from Buddhist extremists. Their many successfully-run businesses have been burned. The government has barricaded them into concentration camps, where they are in dire need of food, water, and medical help. Aid groups that have been trying to help them face being banned from the country. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to this — the greatest human rights issue facing her country — is shocking.

In 2012, she said she “didn’t know” if the Rohingya could be citizens. In doing so she aligned herself with the government’s official policy that the Rohingya don’t exist. In fact, Burmese officials threatened to boycott the recent regional conference to address the migrant crisis if the other participants so much as used the word “Rohingya.” This is in spite of the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for centuries — some scholars say they are indigenous people of the Rakhine state.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s more recent comments are no redeemer: “If I speak up for human rights, [the Rohingya] will only suffer. There will be more blood.” Why the evasiveness? Aung San Suu Kyi is courting the country’s Buddhist majority, among whom hatred for the Rohingya is rampant.

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. After the 1990 national elections, the military refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi’s victorious party. Instead, they placed her under house arrest for fifteen years. During that period, this willowy and graceful politician became an international heroine. Her face and the signature roses in her hair became icons of patience in the face of political oppression. But since 2010, the year she was released, the country has been opening itself up to democracy. It allowed limited free elections, loosened restrictions on the media, and freed most political prisoners.

Burma’s democratic opening and new freedoms of expression have not improved the Rohingya’s plight. With his hardline stance — that the Rohingya must face either expulsion or concentration camps — President Thein Sein has helped solidify his popular approval. Radical monk Ashin Wirathu, who graced the cover of TIME as “the face of Buddhist terror,” has been using his new freedom of speech to spread hateful propaganda through Facebook and YouTube. Even pro-democracy groups have been throwing vicious racial slurs at the Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is little better. Ko Ko Gyi, a leading NLD figure who was an activist in the famous 1988 student uprising, called the persecuted minority “terrorists.” NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said, “The Rohingya are not our citizens.” When NLD Information Officer Htin Linn Oo spoke out against Buddhist extremism, the NLD removed him from his post. Now, he is being prosecuted for “defaming religion.”

Burma’s pro-democracy forces need to remember that democracy is not just about popular rule. Hitler, after all, was democratically elected and exploited national unrest and ethnic hatred to solidify his power. Perhaps that’s why the U.S. Holocaust Museum took a “bearing witness trip” to Burma in March 2015 and warned of early signs of genocide.

Democracy rests on human rights, equality, and justice — there is no room in a democracy for discriminatory laws and crimes against humanity, even if some may defend these as “the will of the majority.” It is uncertain whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to run in the next election, but as the influential leader of Burma’s democratic movement, the stance she takes has an indelible effect on Burma’s future. To continue being the voice against military rule in Burma, she must call for an end to Rohingya persecution.

In the photo, Rohingya migrants are pictured on a boat found drifting near Thailand in mid-May.

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