She came, she saw, she conquered. The photograph of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi standing proudly with America’s smiling political elite at her Congressional Gold Medal ceremony last month in Washington, D.C., provides a powerful image of this heroine of democracy. She has justifiably caught the world’s attention and earned its love. Arizona Sen. John McCain called her “his personal hero.”
In Suu Kyi’s visit to American University where she received an honorary doctorate during her U.S. visit, we are provided with another powerful image of her, that of a supplicant Buddhist kneeling before a dozen monks to receive their blessing. She has not only become a voice for freedom and political leadership but a voice of Buddhist compassion for the Burmese people and the ethnic minority groups on the periphery who have long suffered under Burma’s oppressive government.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burmese founding father Aung San, was known to rely on her Buddhist faith for a sense of inner freedom during her 15 years of captivity after rising to power during the 1988 student uprising. After her release in 2010, she continued her work for democracy, stressing the “loving kindness” of Buddhist teachings for Burma’s democratic transition in place of feelings of hatred and revenge. She was elected to the Burmese Parliament representing the National League for Democracy, and in recent weeks, she has expressed her willingness to continue to serve her nation as the next president of Burma with elections scheduled for 2015.
With Suu Kyi’s near universal appeal and star power, she is in a unique position for both political leadership in Burma as well as a voice of Buddhist compassion and an ally for the oppressed. Buddha stressed that compassion lay at the heart of a Buddha nature and demonstrates one’s respect for the dignity of life.
Yet, Suu Kyi has remained curiously silent on one of the most urgent humanitarian issues facing Burma, the plight of the Rohingya people.
The Rohingya, whom the BBC and many NGOs call “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups,” are the little known Muslim people of the coastal Arakan state of western Burma. Over the past three decades, the Rohingya have been systematically pushed out of their homes by Burma’s military government and subjected to widespread violence along with the complete negation of their rights and even identity. They have become a stateless minority.
Many hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries. The Rohingya are surrounded by adherents of the great faiths - Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianty - all of which emphasis compassion and charity for the needy. Despite these compulsions from their faiths, many Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians in South Asia have treated the Rohingya with nothing but outright hostility.
The current situation of the Rohingya is a challenge not only for all in the region to adhere to the demands of their faiths but a challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi and the Buddhists of Burma to treat the suffering Rohingya with “loving kindness,” of which they have seen little.
The widely reported violence in July 2012 against the Rohingya by the neighboring Buddhist Rakhine people in which over 1,000 Rohingya were killed and entire villages burned to the ground must be understood in the context of this sustained campaign of oppression against the Rohingya. The violent actions of the Rakhine were committed with the complicity and, at times, participation of the government security forces.
Even the new democratic reforms have not altered the perception of the Rohingya with President Thein Sein stating in July 2012 in the wake of this violence that he would not recognize the Rohingya or their rights and wished to turn over the entire ethnic group to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees. Buddhist monks, contrary to the teachings of Buddha, staged anti-Rohingya marches in September to declare their support for the president’s proposal. The Burmese government has blocked the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from opening an aid office to assist displaced Rohingya due to the violence in Arakan state.
While many ethnic minorities in Burma, with non-Burmese peoples comprising over 30 percent of the population, have been the victims of the military junta’s oppressive measures, the Rohingya stand apart in that their very existence is threatened.
When General Ne Win and the military junta came to power in 1962, the central government began to shift away from the inclusive vision of Aung San and towards a nationalist ideology based on the Burmese ethnicity and the Buddhist faith. The Rohingya, as both non-Burmese and Muslim, were now stripped of any legitimacy and erroneously and incorrectly labeled “illegal Bengali immigrants.”
The initial push of the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign came in 1978 under Operation Naga Min with the purpose of scrutinizing everyone in the state as either a citizen or alleged “illegal immigrant.” For the Rohingya people, this resulted in widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, desecration of mosques, destruction of villages, and confiscation of lands. In the wake of this violence, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, many of whom were later repatriated to Burma where they faced further rape, imprisonment, and torture.
In 1991, a second push, known as Operation Pyi Thaya, or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was launched with the same purpose, resulting in another mass exodus of 200,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, with nearly 300,000 refugees remaining today, many without food or medical assistance from a Muslim population ignoring the demands for compassion in their faith towards their fellow Muslims.
With the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya were officially denied Burmese citizenship and effectively ceased to exist legally. With their loss of citizenship, the Rohingya found their lives difficult to lead. They were barred from travelling outside their villages, repairing their decaying places of worship, receiving an education in any language or even marrying and having children without rarely granted government permission, often procured through bribes which few are able to afford. The failure to receive permission for any of these innocuous acts lands the offenders in prison where men are beaten and women routinely raped.
Women who become illegally pregnant are forced to either flee the country or resort to dangerous back-alley abortions, where many die because of their inability to get adequate medical treatment due to the severe travel restrictions.
The Rohingya are also subjected to modern-day slavery, where they are forced to work on infrastructure projects, such as constructing “model villages” to house Burmese settlers intended to displace them. Women are susceptible to forced prostitution by the Burmese security forces.
While many efforts have been made by the Burmese government towards the creation of an open and democratic political system, there is still much more to be done. Suu Kyi, following the example of inclusive leaders like Nelson Mandela, should reach out to the Rohingya people and set a positive precedent for an all-embracing society which welcomes the participation of the Rohingya as well as all the ethnic minorities of Burma. In this way, she will also be living up to the ideals of her Buddhist faith to show compassion towards those who suffer. Where she leads, others will follow.
Only when the systematic violence against the Rohingya ends can a truly democratic Burma be legitimate in the eyes of its own people and the international community.
But the first step is for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma to acknowledge the Rohingya exist.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Harrison Akins, an Ibn Khaldun Chair research fellow at American, is assisting Ahmed with his forthcoming book, “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam .”