Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto ruler, has just canceled her planned visit to the U.N. General Assembly next week. Usually world leaders jump at the chance to hog the spotlight in New York, but Burma’s famous Nobel Peace Prize laureate apparently has more pressing business.
A government spokesman says that she’s needed at home due to the turmoil in Burma, where about 379,000 members of the Rohingya minority have fled across the border to Bangladesh since late August. He also claims that the authorities have been tipped off to the possibility of terrorist attacks.
All of that may well be true. But there’s a more likely reason for Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to stay home: a rising storm of global indignation over the treatment of the Rohingya, who have been facing what a top U.N. official recently described as “ethnic cleansing.” The Burmese military has been attacking Rohingya villages, often accompanied by violent vigilantes, in retaliation for raids on police outposts by a Rohingya insurgent group that killed 12 people last month. Hundreds of Rohingya, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, have died in the crackdown, and dozens of their villages have been burned down by the attackers, who are mostly from Burma’s Buddhist majority.
Two years ago, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in Burma’s first free and fair election in decades, many of her supporters in Burma and around the world cheered a rare victory for freedom in an era when dictatorships appear to be on the rise. Yet since then her international prestige has plummeted — largely due to her failure to defend the Rohingya. On Sept. 6, she caused global headlines by blaming the crisis on fake news created by “terrorists.”
It’s good to see international humanitarians giving voice to a long-suffering group. But there’s a more ominous dimension to the growing international scandal. It’s inflaming Muslims around the world, who see their co-religionists as the latest victims in a global clash of civilizations.
The Rohingya have long suffered persecution in Burma, where a 1982 law denies them citizenship and a system of virtual apartheid restricts their movements. Burmese nationalists insist that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations.
Over the past two weeks, their harrowing exodus has turned what was once a smoldering human rights scandal into an international cause celebre. Demonstrators — many of them Muslim — have taken to the streets to demand justice for the Rohingyas in Malaysia, Canada, Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Australia. Protesters in Jakarta, Indonesia, burned photos of Aung San Suu Kyi and threw a gasoline bomb at the Burmese embassy. Dozens of others were arrested by Russian police this past weekend when they turned up to protest in the center of St. Petersburg.
The crisis is already adding fresh accelerant to a variety of sectarian confrontations around the world. It’s already causing complications in India, where Hindu nationalists have been urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to expel Rohingya refugees. Modi, indeed, is one of the few world leaders to support Burma’s policy on the Rohingya, a stance that is likely to aggravate his own Muslim population. At the same time, Malaysia and Indonesia — both Muslim-majority countries — are growing increasingly exasperated by Burma’s harsh handling of its Islamic minority.
The nascent Rohingya insurgency, which has ties to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, adds an especially explosive ingredient to the regional mix. Al-Qaeda has issued a statement calling on Muslims around the world to give “military support” to the Rohingya.
And, as so often in the past, strongmen from around the Islamic world are only too keen to seize on the opportunities afforded by emotional imagery of suffering Muslims. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dispatched his foreign minister and his wife to bring aid to the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh — a convenient distraction from his continuing authoritarian crackdown at home. The Iranians have denounced the Rohingya predicament as an Israeli plot. Saudi Arabia has harshly criticized the Burmese while predictably glossing over its miserable treatment of the Rohingya refugees living in its own borders.
And, in perhaps the most bizarre example, the leader of the Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadryov, recently rallied tens of thousands of people for the Rohingya cause in his regional capital (though Russian media largely passed over the event). Observers noted that Kadyrov was keen to burnish his global credentials as a Muslim leader.
What is clear is that Burma’s policies toward its vulnerable Muslim minority are resonating far beyond its own borders. The Rohingya tragedy has been a blot on Burma’s struggling democratic transition for some time. But now it is poisoning global politics to a degree that we are only beginning to appreciate. The international community needs to take action before it’s too late.