To place hope in defiant Aung San Suu Kyi seems futile

When will Myanmar's de facto leader finally step up to the responsibilities her role entails?

Aung San Suu Kyi can't bring herself to construct a sentence that radiates compassion or concern for the Rohingya.   Khin Maung Win / AP
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In what might be considered the understatement of the year, what is happening to the Rohingya population in Myanmar, in the words of US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, is "just horrific". On a visit to the capital Naypyidaw on Wednesday, he called for an independent investigation into "credible reports of widespread atrocities" against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, as international abomination continues to grow over their treatment at the hands of Myanmar's military. Yet Mr Tillerson held back from calling for sanctions or punitive measures to force the country's leadership to address the sectarian divides which have resulted in such violence. The acknowledgement from Washington that the Rohingya are being persecuted comes as Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, continues to repeatedly deny allegations of ethnic cleansing.

Her silence over the treatment of the Rohingya has been rivalled only by her failure to publicly criticise the army ever since it launched its offensive on the Rohingya in August. The defence she advanced on Wednesday, arguing that her objective was not to "set people against each other", is impossible to reconcile with her dehumanising talk about the Rohingya, whom she has variously described as "terrorists" and "Bengalis", a term intended to negate their right to live in Rakhine province. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled threats of rape, arson and murder to live in squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh and Ms Suu Kyi cannot bring herself to construct a phrase that radiates either compassion or concern. Her visit to Rakhine earlier this month increasingly looks like a photo opportunity organised by her public relations personnel, not a tour motivated by any genuine humanitarian intentions.


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A Human Rights Watch report, released after Ms Suu Kyi's trip, documents the sexual violence endured by Rohingya women and girls at the hands of the Myanmar military. Writing in these pages in September, Ms Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus asked the leader of Myanmar to visit the Rohingya and tell them "Myanmar is as much their home as it is hers". Ms Suu Kyi's conduct suggests that she views herself not as the leader of all the inhabitants of Myanmar but as the tribune of the majority community. Anointed in opposition as a symbol of human dignity, she has mutated, in power, into the champion of sectarian prejudices. To place hope in her seems futile.