A People’s Cry, a Heroine’s Silence
Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under military house arrest in Burma; (r) Rohingya refugees receiving food in Bangladesh, 2017
Rhino Records released in 2004 a compilation CD of various artists from around the world coming together for a good cause: “Dedicated to freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and the courageous people of Burma”, as the front cover of the CD boldly noted. This two-disc set, titled For the Lady, featured tracks by the usual fare of socially conscious liberal/leftish artists, plus a few more apolitical types — like former Beatle Paul McCartney and guitarist Eric Clapton — that you normally wouldn’t see on this kind of overtly political music release.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, “The Lady” to whom this CD was dedicated, had been under house arrest by the brutal military regime in the southeast Asian nation of Burma for more than a decade. Buyers of this CD were encouraged to support and get involved in a nonprofit organization called the U.S. Campaign for Burma as a way to show solidarity for the oppressed people of that country. Aung San Suu Kyi was to Asia then what Nelson Mandela was to Africa — a true hero in the struggle for an oppressed people’s freedom.
Thirteen years later, in 2017, Suu Kyi (pronounced suu chi) was being painted as an accomplice to genocide in her country. Her alma mater at Oxford University in England publicly disowned her, and the city of Dublin in Ireland — a country that has historically known a good hero when it sees one — took back a “Freedom of the City” award it had once bestowed upon her.
And if that weren’t bad enough, just earlier this month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the official American memorial institution dedicated to the memory of the genocide of European Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany in World War II, announced it was revoking its own high award that had been given to Suu Kyi.
What happened in those intervening years to make the world turn so strongly against such a highly admired and beloved human rights icon? The Rohingya happened, that’s what.
The Rohingya are an indigenous South Asian people, mostly of Muslim religious descent, located in Burma’s Rakhine State. As a majority Buddhist nation, Burma refuses to recognize the Rohingya as its citizens, which means the Rohingya are officially a stateless people with no rights and no real home. They are considered to be one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, if not the most persecuted people on the planet.
The United Nations estimates that more than 800,000 Rohingya have fled Burma in the past year or so to escape what appears to be a Burmese government-approved ethnic cleansing operation, and that more than 600,000 of those people have fled to neighboring Bangladesh alone. Victimized by mass killings and displacement by the Burmese military, more than 10,000 Rohingya are flooding over the border into Bangladesh every day, the UN says, setting the stage for one of the worst refugee and humanitarian crises of our time.
So, what does Aung San Suu Kyi, today the foreign minister and state counselor (akin to prime minister) of Burma, have to do with any this? After all, she has always stood up for democracy in the world and has never specifically called for the extermination of the Rohingya people. On the other hand, Suu Kyi has not spoken up and used her moral authority and political leverage to stop the Rohingya slaughter and mass exodus either. And therein lies the rub: She is being ostracized, isolated and in some cases punished internationally not for what she is doing — but rather for what she isn’t doing or saying about the ongoing Rohingya crisis in her country.
For those of us around the world, like myself, who took up the rallying cry of “Free Aung San Suu Kyi!” back in the late 1980s/early 1990s and who demanded her unconditional release during the years when she was a prisoner in her own home — at a time when her people were being slaughtered in the streets by the military — it is distressing today to see her standing by so silently. When she most needed the world’s support at the grassroots level, it was there for her.
I self-published a book of poetry back in 1999 titled Inochi (“Life” in Japanese). In the book I included a poem I had written for Aung San Suu Kyi, and here is how it went….
Today I fast and pray
in my own humble way
for a land
for a people
for anyone in the world
holding freedom in their hearts
like a bonfire
that refuses to be put out
for the political-power junkies
with their money-hungry flunkies
who have nothing better
to do with their days
than to oppress and kill off
their own beautiful people
—and hook millions more
innocent lives across the seas
on the lurid pleasures
of the poppy seed
Today I fast and pray
with many around the world
for The People
for The Lady
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
I really wanted to send my poetry book, and especially this poem, directly to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was still under house arrest in Rangoon, then the capital city of Burma. I realized, of course, that the odds were slim of that ever happening.
Still, I tried using some private channels of Buddhist acquaintances who had connections into Burma, and one day a cryptic message came back to me: Your package has reached its destination. Which meant that Aung San Suu Kyi herself had apparently received my book of poetry through underground channels in Burma. Did she actually get my book and read the poem I wrote for her? There was no way to be absolutely sure, but you can believe that I was walking on cloud nine for a long time after that.
That was the kind of love and support people around the world expressed for Aung San Suu Kyi when she was in dire straits. But when a portion of her own country’s people, the Rohingya, now need that same kind of voice demanding human rights and dignity, it would seem she has no ears to hear their cries.
On one side of this issue are those, especially in Asian countries, who say we should continue to support Aung San Suu Kyi and appreciate what a difficult position she is in: If she pushes too hard domestically on the Rohingya issue, she could easily be locked up or sent back into house arrest again by the military establishment of Burma, which still retains much political power. So, she has chosen to deal with the issue carefully and diplomatically, they say, and she is doing her best under very difficult circumstances. There is some truth to that defense.
On the other side of the chasm, however, are the westerners, especially White American Liberals (WALs) of the United States, who have taken a much stronger stance on the issue. Nicholas Kristof, the resident WAL columnist of the New York Times, has all but accused Aung San Suu Kyi of having a persecuted people’s blood on her hands: “She is now the effective leader of Myanmar’s government and has emerged as not only an apologist for this genocide, but also as complicit in it.”
Harsh words, to be sure. And yet, there is some truth there too, as the human rights investigations, refugee relief operations and ongoing news media reports of the Rohingya people’s plight can attest to and confirm. Even a prominent Christian leader whose high moral standing I consider to be beyond dispute, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has sent an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, essentially pleading with her to say something, to do something, about the Rohingya crisis in her country. Tutu wrote:
“My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar [Burma] is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.”
Amen to that.
The world now expects of Aung San Suu Kyi to stand up and speak out with the same kind of moral force that people everywhere once did for her and her struggling people. After all, if the world had turned a deaf ear to Suu Kyi’s passionate plea of the past — “Please, use your liberty to promote ours” — she would not be where she is today.
There is no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi is still a respected leader to many of us, but her elevated stature among human rights icons is slipping fast in the wake of the Rohingya crisis. To help save herself, and her people, she must act decisively and swiftly on this crisis before one more innocent Rohingya man, woman, child or elder in her nation is displaced or dies in the vacuum of silence.