Aung San Suu Kyi speech: Those looking for Rohingya intervention may now want to give up

In refusing to acknowledge what is happening in Rakhine state and using her position to promote the idea that abuses against the Rohingya are not being perpetrated or will not be punished, the Myanmar leader is belying the claim she made during the televised address that, 'Our government has emerged as a body committed to human rights'

Rohingya refugees react as aid is distributed in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Before Tuesday it had been rumoured that Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to address allegations of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya was due to some kind of frailty or because she was being forced into silence by Myanmar’s powerful generals. But such rumours can now be discounted.

The leader, who on Tuesday gave a televised address to diplomats, may have been using words penned by or in conjunction with military officials, but the imperious tone with which she insisted that the country has other problems to deal with besides the Rohingya crisis was all her own.

Not that she used the word "Rohingya". As has been her policy, she stuck firmly to the name “Muslims” when referring to the mainly-stateless minority who are widely seen in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — a view Aung San Suu Kyi reinforced in her speech when she referred to those Rohingya villagers who had not yet fled the violence as “Muslims who’ve integrated successfully”.

Why, she wanted to know, had “the great majority” of Rakhine state’s Muslim population not left? An odd interpretation of a situation that has seen half a million Rohingya — out of a total number in Myanmar of around 1.1 million — flee into Bangladesh since last October’s previous military clearances. Over 420,000 of these have fled since the latest military operations began at the end of last month.

After all, Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out, more than 50 per cent of Muslim villages in Rakhine, remain “intact” — as if the mass destruction of all the others wasn’t the important issue.

And, in one of the more remarkable examples of disingenuity in a speech that ranged between fudging key issues to blatant misinformation, the leader insisted that she and the government could not understand why hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had fled their homes.

“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she told diplomats.

As the BBC’s former Myanmar correspondent Jonah Fisher responded on Twitter, “Does she not have a television?”

In her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi said the government felt "deeply for the suffering of all the people who have been caught up in the conflict”, going on to name several small recognised ethnic minority populations in Rakhine, but not once referring directly to the stateless Rohingya who have borne the brunt of the violence.

Aung San Suu Kyi cannot outright condemn the military on this issue and also retain her position as de facto head of the country. The generals are far too powerful. But, in refusing to acknowledge what is happening and using her position to promote the idea that abuses are not being perpetrated or will not be punished, she is belying the claim she made during the speech that, “Our government has emerged as a body committed to human rights”.


Read more:

The Rohingya crisis: a tragedy decades in the making


Her insistence that “action will be taken against those who go against the law of the land and violate human rights” should not be taken as a reassurance.

Not only does the military have constitutionally enshrined impunity within Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has refused to co-operate with a United Nations investigation into allegations that security forces perpetrated crimes against humanity during clearance operations last year.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s own investigations into alleged abuses have been widely derided by international actors as being poorly carried out and biased.

Those who still held out hope that Aung San Suu Kyi, a former pro-democracy activist and Nobel peace prize winner, is going to intervene in a meaningful fashion may want to give up now.

Comparing running the country to looking after one’s health she suggested there were other issues to be addressed besides the violence in Rakhine: “We cannot just concentrate on a few,” she said.

As if to reflect this, only a few minutes of the 30-minute speech directly addressed what is happening in Rakhine.

It is true civilians in other parts of the country are also facing displacement and violence because of ongoing conflicts and that they are often ignored, but the scale of what is going on in Rakhine should undoubtedly make it a priority.

Aung San Suu Kyi's claim that refugees would be able to return home after a verification process, meanwhile, avoided the key point that most Rohingya will find it impossible to provide any kind of documentation or evidence to allow them to be "verified", given that Myanmar has made it near impossible for them to obtain such documentation.

As for her assertion that all people in Rakhine have access to health care and education “without discrimination”, such words unnecessarily rub salt into a terrible wound. For years before the current crisis claimed lives, countless Rohingya died because of restrictions on their movements which prevent them accessing proper medical care.

It was unclear who Aung San Suu Kyi was trying to convince with the speech: the diplomats or herself.

It should also be noted that although the speech in English was televised, the leader is yet to directly speak to the people of Myanmar about the crisis. Myanmar people took to social media to express dismay that her words were in a language that many could not understand.

As for what happens next, that remains as unclear as ever.

According to Aung San Suu Kyi's speech, there have been “no armed clashes and no clearance operations” since September 5. It may be that major operations have been scaled back, but photographs taken from Bangladesh in recent days show smoke still rising over Rakhine and the flood of people into Bangladesh continues.