‘A lot of fake news’: Burmese back Aung San Suu Kyi on Rohingya crisis
Sep 23, 2017-Hundreds of jubilant supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi gathered in Yangon on Tuesday to watch their country’s leader give her first public address on the Rohingya crisis.
There was no doubt over the spectators’ allegiances; many watching the public broadcast of her televised address had plastered stickers reading “stand with Aung San Suu Kyi” on their faces. Red balloons—the colour of her National League for Democracy party—rose over City Hall as she spoke. “Worldwide, a lot of fake news and rumours are spreading,” said May Nyi Oo, 42, wearing bright red lipstick and Aung San Suu Kyi stickers on her cheeks.
More than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state to neighbouring Bangladesh since Rohingya insurgents attacked dozens of police posts in late August, prompting a massive military crackdown. The refugees have brought with them accounts of mass slaughter and arson at the hands of the soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists. The UN has called the bloody onslaught “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Those who gathered in Yangon, however, doubted the outside world’s version of events. The Rohingya minority—who are not recognised as Myanmar citizens—have long been persecuted in the Buddhist majority country. “There are some people who want to make trouble and want to grab the land of Myanmar,” said Myo Myint Aung, a 26-year-old teacher, who said Rohingya insurgents were supported by sinister transnational Islamist groups.
In her speech on Tuesday to diplomats in Naypyidaw, the capital, Aung San Suu Kyi cast doubt on those accounts, saying she did not know why Muslims were fleeing and that there was a need to find out what the “real problems” were.
While Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech was pilloried internationally for taking a soft line on the military and espousing falsehoods—Amnesty International said she was “burying her head in the sand”—her words won favour with a local audience, many of whom harbour deep-seated prejudices against the Rohingya.
The Rohingya are illegal immigrants, said May Nyi Oo, echoing the views of many in the crowd and across Myanmar who deem them invaders from Bangladesh despite their centuries-long presence in Rakhine. “It is sure that they are not our people,” she said.
At home, where the violence is being framed as a war on “extremist terrorists”—namely the nascent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army insurgency—there has been little outcry over the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Buddhist ultranationalists have held several demonstrations in Yangon and Naypyidaw denouncing the insurgents. There have been no solidarity marches for the Rohingya. Thet Swe Win, a Buddhist civil society activist and one of the few liberal voices on the Rohingya in Myanmar, laughed sadly at the suggestion. “We don’t dare do that yet,” he said.
The 31-year-old, who is the director of the Centre for Youth and Social Harmony, an inter-faith group, has visited Rohingya internal displacement camps in both Myanmar and Bangladesh and last year started an online petition against Buddhist nationalist violence. He frequently posts on Facebook about the plight of the Rohingya. “The army or the previous government—they mobilised people,” he said. “They slowly educated people to hate Muslims.”
Myanmar’s civil society—thriving despite, or perhaps because of, decades of military dictatorship—has been mostly silent on the Rohingya. “They are the most unwanted people in the world,” said Thet Swe Win.
He said almost none of his friends or family shared his views. “Civil society became so divided. There is no trust between each other.”
Khin Zaw Win, who spent 11 years in jail for his part in the democracy struggle, is one of the few former political prisoners who are vocal on the Rohingya crisis. He has written sympathetic articles about the Rohingya for international media, the most recent of which was titled “Fences and ghettos aren’t the answer in Rakhine”. He decries what he sees as a lack of empathy among former political prisoners like himself.
“I myself have suffered injustice,” said Khin Zaw Win, who is now director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute. “I would say it’s hypocritical. Because when we were in prison, there was so much pressure on the international community, so much talk about human rights and democracy.”
He attributed prejudice against the Rohingya to the country’s decades of isolation and indoctrination under the rule of generals who nurtured anti-Muslim sentiment and adopted harsh citizenship laws that excluded the group. “Only an acute fear, coupled with resentment, can produce the collective mental state that’s being expressed right now in Myanmar,” said Francis Wade, the author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim Other. “It’s hard to see how a minority that is effectively quarantined in a remote corner of the country can be the source of a national hysteria without there having been some careful engineering of the public discourse surrounding them.”
The refugee crisis has brought about an unusual alignment between the positions of Aung San Suu Kyi and the military, old enemies whose relationship is still strained. One of the banners at Tuesday’s demonstration in Yangon read: “We will stand by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We will stand by our government. We will stand by our army.”
But not all those in the crowd in Yangon equated support for Aung San Suu Kyi with endorsement of the army. Asked whether she approved of the military, May Nyi Oo said: “Not so much.”
Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD won a resounding victory over the army proxy party in the 2015 election but their grip on power is still fragile; the military controls a quarter of the seats in parliament and several key ministries. There are fears among senior members of her party—as well as the general public—that the army will use the crisis in Rakhine as an excuse to seize power. “What if [Aung San Suu Kyi] is against them? What sort of unimaginable problem would there be then?” said Myo Myint Aung. He said the demonstration was led by “democratic forces” as opposed to ultranationalist protests by “hardliners who want to take back the power from the hands of the people”. “We have to fear this party as well,” he said. The civil society activists said a silent minority privately sympathise with the Rohingya, but are intimidated into keeping quiet.
Thet Swe Win said he fears anti-terrorism legislation could be used against Rohingya sympathisers. “According to this law, whoever supports the terrorist attack will be considered a terrorist as well. They can use this act to take action against us,” he said. Before Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech, many Burmese Facebook users had changed their profile pictures to display the message “I stand with Aung San Suu Kyi”. A smaller group opted for the more vaguely worded “I stand with peace and justice”.
Khin Zaw Win said he had no plans to stop advocating for the Rohingya, despite receiving a barrage of online abuse. “No, no, because I have a clear conscience,” he said. “And if someone argues with me, I’ll say: ‘No. That’s not the case.’”
—©2017 The Guardian
Published: 23-09-2017 07:54