Has Aung San Suu Kyi waited too long to speak out on her na­tion’s woes?

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - World Wide - Fer­gal Keane Fer­gal Keane is a BBC Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

IN the rainy sea­son the il­lu­sion never changes. It is the same sea ev­ery time. The same be­guil­ing con­flu­ences of wa­ter and gold, sun­light and vivid green, wooden stilt bridges, small fig­ures far be­low in the dusk as the plane banks over the Man­dalay hills. There is no more beau­ti­ful ap­proach to the land any­where on earth, a de­scent that is like an as­cent: your body is com­ing to the earth but the heart soars in the pres­ence of such beauty. The rice pad­dies have been flooded since the first rains came in May giv­ing the im­pres­sion of a flooded civil­i­sa­tion above which the golden pago­das seem sus­pended in air.

It is im­pos­si­ble to con­ceive of this as a place in which ha­tred might blos­som. The still­ness of a pre-in­dus­trial land­scape, the body re­duced to list­less­ness by the press­ing heat, the smiles on ev­ery pass­ing face, those lines of saf­fron­robed monks clutch­ing their alms bowls. All that and gen­er­a­tions of con­di­tion­ing of a western mind which sees the word Bud­dhism and in­stantly thinks of the Dalai Lama, celebri­ties like Richard Gere, med­i­ta­tion, thou­sands of self-help books, and ap­peals for com­pas­sion and tol­er­ance.

It is the last part, or rather their ab­sence, that is caus­ing the prob­lem in Myan­mar now. Numer­ous friends have asked me in tones of dis­be­lief if Bud­dhists could re­ally be ca­pa­ble of the crimes be­ing at­trib­uted to them now, a nas­ti­ness that has driven over 400,000 peo­ple to flee from their homes into makeshift camps in neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh, per­pe­trate rape and mur­der, and sow land­mines on paths used by refugees? I have news for you, my friends. They are ca­pa­ble. More than ca­pa­ble. Like the rest of us of all faiths and none, they can, in fact, be fe­ro­ciously en­thu­si­as­tic about slaugh­ter­ing their eth­nic, re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies.

That I should have to ex­plain this says much for the power of stereo­type and broader ig­no­rance of the his­tory of South East Asia.

Be­ing a de­voutly Bud­dhist coun­try does not give im­mu­nity to the vice of ha­tred. Any­body re­mem­ber Cam­bo­dia and the de­voutly Bud­dhist so­ci­ety that gave us the geno­ci­dal Kh­mer Rouge? Or Sri Lanka and its sav­age war with the Tamils? Or the vi­cious crack­downs in Thai­land, where tol­er­ance is so val­ued that the mere hint of a com­ment that might be seen to dis­re­spect the monarch can land you in jail?

There are numer­ous other ex­am­ples of vi­cious­ness in the Bud­dhist realms. But the is­sue is not a be­lief sys­tem. The fault does not lie with Bud­dhism as such, no more than the fault lay exclusively with re­li­gion in our own blood quar­rels. Or with re­li­gion in the cur­rent wars in Syria or Iraq.

It is the mis­use of re­li­gion that brings un­told grief. And yes, we need to ac­knowl­edge that faith can be the most pow­er­ful of all flags. Men can un­leash their most vile in­stincts un­der the pre­tence of do­ing holy work. But scrape away the flak­ing paint and there is a dif­fer­ent fresco on the an­cient walls, a ha­tred borne of fear of the ‘other’ and usu­ally an ‘other’ whose ex­is­tence is re­sented for the most ba­sic, non-sec­tar­ian rea­sons. Do the Rakhine Bud­dhists hate the Ro­hingya be­cause they face Mecca to pray and revere a dif­fer­ent holy book? Of course they don’t. They fear them be­cause they them­selves are among the poor­est of the coun­try’s poor and they have been told by the mil­i­tary for gen­er­a­tions that the Ro­hingya want to take what they have. They have been told that un­less they fight back they will be swamped and de­stroyed, that their women will be se­duced and used as ve­hi­cles to breed Mus­lim ba­bies and di­lute the race. To stu­dents of geno­cide or eth­nic cleans­ing, this lan­guage will be fa­mil­iar. It is what usu­ally comes in the prepara­tory stages.

These hate­ful fal­si­ties have been en­cour­aged by a self-serv­ing elite com­posed of the mil­i­tary and some

se­nior Bud­dhist clergy. They have been en­abled by a pro-democ­racy move­ment that has de­cided to re­main silent, not least be­cause of fear of alien­at­ing a larger pop­u­la­tion that, by and large, has ac­cepted the agenda of un­truth. Blame the seal­ing of Myan­mar from the world over decades on the abil­ity of the elite to pre­serve the ugly mytholo­gies of race and faith.

The Bud­dhist monks of Ma Ba Tha have led the way in Mus­lim bait­ing. This pop­u­lar move­ment was banned last July by the gov­ern­ment of Aung San Suu Kyi. But the ban has not been en­forced, per­haps be­cause of a lack of en­thu­si­asm among the se­cu­rity forces. I went to meet the monks in Man­dalay for an en­counter they filmed and which in­volved them scold­ing me for the BBC’s use of the term ‘Ro­hingya’ when “no such race ex­isted.” There were eight monks fac­ing me in a semi-cir­cle and all re­peated the same ethno-sec­tar­ian polemic.

These men have, in the past, de­rided Aung San Suu Kyi. But her stance on the Ro­hingya is­sue pleases them. She has de­scribed the prob­lems in Rakhine state as ‘ter­ror­ism’ and writ­ten-off re­ports of eth­nic cleans­ing as an “ice­berg of mis­in­for­ma­tion.” One Monk told me “she is on the right side in this Ben­gali (the pe­jo­ra­tive term for Ro­hingya) is­sue.”

Aung San Suu Kyi does not con­trol the mil­i­tary. The com­pro­mise that al­lowed for demo­cratic elec­tions in­volved ced­ing con­trol over the army, bor­ders and do­mes­tic se­cu­rity to the mil­i­tary. But this does not ab­solve a No­bel Lau­re­ate from the re­spon­si­bil­ity to call for tol­er­ance and an end to abuses. Know­ing the mil­i­tary as well as she does, Aung San Suu Kyi knows pre­cisely what they are ca­pa­ble of in Rakhine state. The ‘ice­berg of mis­in­for­ma­tion’ line is disin­gen­u­ous, to put it mildly. Some di­plo­mats have sug­gested she will not speak out where she be­lieves pri­vate pres­sure is best. Pri­vate pres­sure has achieved noth­ing.

The blame for eth­nic cleans­ing lies with the mil­i­tary and its chief, Gen­eral Min Aung Hlaing. But it is Aung San Suu Kyi’s gov­ern­ment that has co­op­er­ated in the ban­ning of in­de­pen­dent aid work­ers and jour­nal­ists, and re­fused to ut­ter a sin­gle public word urg­ing re­straint on the mil­i­tary. True, in a coun­try where the ma­jor­ity re­gards the Ro­hingya as in­ter­lop­ers, she risks po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion by speak­ing out.

But five years ago over 100,000 Ro­hingya were driven out and she said noth­ing. She was not in gov­ern­ment then, not tied to the mil­i­tary.

There have been many times since then when she could have spo­ken but chose to stay silent. Lead­er­ship in­volves un­pleas­ant com­pro­mises. But it also means speak­ing out when your coun­try is be­ing con­sumed by catas­tro­phe. Now it is the mil­i­tary hawks and Bud­dhist hard­lin­ers who are in the as­cen­dant. Per­haps the time when Aung Suu Kyi might have made a dif­fer­ence, has passed.

EX­O­DUS: Refugee Ro­hingya Mus­lims walk to shore af­ter flee­ing from Myan­mar to Bangladesh. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

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