In 2012, while pursuing a midcareer fellowship at Brown University in the United States, I had a rare offer to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic pro-democracy leader of Burma, while she was on an official visit to New Delhi, the city where she got her college degree.
I had interviewed several heads of state and global newsmakers over the years, but this time, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Nothing, certainly not the four-hour bus ride to New York or the subsequent 16-hour transatlantic flight for one day and back, was going to keep me from speaking with her.
Like millions of women in India, I had grown up adulating Aung San Suu Kyi for her nonviolent resistance, her soft-spoken steeliness and her personal suffering. She was my girl crush; while her striking face was framed by the amazing grace of a single flower, in my eyes, she was also was a model of human strength. When she shared how she had to tape a long-distance farewell message for her terminally ill husband, Michael — “I had told him there would come a day when I would have to choose my country first” — it only reaffirmed her greatness to me.
Today, Aung San Suu Kyi remains coldly evasive while her country’s military presides over what the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya — a Muslim minority who live in Buddhist-majority Burma’s Rakhine state. Now I ask: Did we all get it wrong? Was Aung San Suu Kyi always more persona than person, more image than integrity, elevated to cult status by a breathless media narrative?
Nothing else can explain how someone who devoted her life to battling for civil rights can be so utterly lacking in empathy. Satellite images and international observers attest to entire Rohingya villages engulfed by flames, forcing nearly 400,000 people across the border into Bangladesh. The Burmese military has called its crackdown a counterinsurgency spurred by an attack on a police post by Rohingya militants last month. But those crushed by the might of the Burmese state are mostly ordinary people. “This is more than a third of the entire Rohingya population in Myanmar. Refugees tell us that soldiers and Rakhine [Buddhist mobs] are asking people to leave and then setting entire villages on fire,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told me in an interview. “We have images that show scores of active fires — and this is only a fraction that can be seen despite the monsoon cloud cover. Hundreds are dead or missing. Aung San Suu Kyi has not just failed to condemn these horrible abuses; she has also stayed silent while her country is becoming divided on ethnic and religious lines.”
Ironically, Aung San Suu Kyi considers Mahatama Gandhi her inspiration. But in India, the land of Gandhi, the persecution of the Rohingya has brought home a test of conscience — and so far, like Aung San Suu Kyi, we are falling short.
India has decided to send humanitarian aid and the Indian foreign ministry has issued a nuanced statement asking Burma for “restraint and maturity focusing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of security forces.” But other sections of the government have spoken of deporting the 40,000 Rohingya refugees already settled in India. “Purely on the basis of legality, anyone who enters illegally, as the Rohingyas have, stands to be deported,” Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju tells me. “But there is a humanitarian dimension and certain practical issues, and we will factor that in.”
Rijiju is apoplectic about the criticism by the U.N. human rights chief Prince Zeid Al Hussein, who said he “deplored” the talk of deportation of the Rohingya by India “at a time of such violence against them in their country.” Rijiju called it “a conspiracy to tarnish our image and present us as people without compassion.” Intelligence officials on his team maintain that there is a serious national security threat from Rohingya radicals who are vulnerable to recruitment from Pakistan-based terrorist groups. Government officials have also linked a 2013 terrorist attack in Bodh Gaya, a place of worship for Buddhists, to Rohingya militants. An intelligence report presented to the prime minister’s office documents links between Rohingya insurgents in Burma and Pakistan-based terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and another jihadist group, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam (HuJi). “Of course India should take steps to identify and prosecute any security threats,” said Ganguly. “But that cannot impact the official policy toward the entire refugee community in India of 40,000 people. India should take the lead in showing how mature nations deal with security challenges by prosecuting perpetrators and not engaging in discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.”
India is confronted with a piquant question: Why have we been so much kinder to illegal immigrants from other parts of the world? Without hard evidence in the public domain about security risks associated with the Rohingya (and even those should not tarnish an entire ethnic community), we run the risk of being accused of religious discrimination in our refugee policy. Hindu migrants fleeing persecution in Pakistan live in the western state of Rajasthan; in the 1980s, the southern state of Tamil Nadu opened its doors to Tamils from Sri Lanka; and Tibetan refugees, the Dalai Lama most prominent among them, are spread across India.
“North America, Australia and Europe should give refuge and show their professed love of Rohingya rights is genuine and not hypocrisy,” says journalist Madhav Nalapat in an interview lashing out at the allegation of bias in India. “We are too poor to play Santa Claus. And the Rohingyas have global champions, unlike Hindus in Pakistan or Bangladesh.”
India’s exasperation with hectoring from the United Nations is understandable. After electing repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia to its top human rights body, the United Nations’ right to stand at the pulpit is pretty suspect. I also understand India’s refusal to sign a global declaration against Burma; India’s fiercely independent foreign policy strategy (unlike the United States’ self-destructive fixation with playing global super-cop) has always tended to avoid comment on the internal affairs of other nations.
But our domestic policy on refugees does not have to its tailor itself to expectations of the West or that of the United Nations; we should live up to our own moral standards. “India cannot be a silent witness to a humanitarian disaster in its neighborhood,” lamented Ganguly. “India should immediately offer support to Bangladesh, a country already reeling under floods, to help cope with this inflow of destitute and desperate Rohingyas.”
Women, children and infants are at the heart of a growing humanitarian crisis. A haunting image of a Rohingya man who walked miles and miles, carrying his parents heaped up in straw baskets attached to his shoulders, underscores the sheer desperation of the situation.
Gandhi would have fasted for the Rohingya man. Suu Kyi has failed the Mahatma. India must not let him down.
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