If one asked about the violent hot spots in the world, even a reasonably well informed Canadian would usually think of the Middle East and Africa. Very few would mention Burma, now officially known as Myanmar, as a serious concern despite there being a large scale ethnic cleansing underway with implicit acquiescence, if not explicit sanction of the government; and that is because the apparent genocide underway there is not receiving the attention it deserves.
After several decades of brutal military dictatorship, there were democratic elections in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the vast majority of seats in parliament. But the 1.3 million Muslim minority Rohingyas in a country of 50 million Buddhists could be forgiven for believing that Myanmar's murderous military junta was still in charge, because there has been no let up in the violent persecution of the Rohingya. They were mercilessly butchered during the military rule. Under Suu Kyi's rule, with government usually looking the other way, the Rohingya continue to be massacred by the majority Buddhists, often led by Buddhist Monks.
A Rohingya community are seen outside their makeshift refugees camp in Kutupalong , Bangladesh on Feb. 15, 2017. (Photo: Samsul Said/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The world famous former political prisoner, a Nobel Laureate and the democratically elected leader of Myanmar, Suu Kyi has been conspicuously silent on the systematic killings of the Rohingya. Once a beloved icon of millions from all over the world for steadfastly resisting the brutal military dictatorship that ruled her country for many years, she is now being criticized by the likes of Dalai Lama for her uncharacteristic silence about the beleaguered minority.
The persecution of the Rohingya continues unabated; and Suu Kyi has spoken only to make excuses for her grim silence on the terrible civil war underway in her country where the Rohingya have no right to legal citizenship or recourse to any legal protections against the continuing violence. Entire Rohingya villages have been destroyed. Fleeing the violence in Myanmar, thousands of the Rohingya have taken refuge in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand; thousands more have died fleeing, many drowning in overcrowded boats.
Suu Kyi's defenders argue that the constitution gives the military control over ministries such as defence and home affairs. That is offered as an explanation for her evident unwillingness to control or criticise the continuing brutality of the military and the Buddhists' against the Rohingya. But Suu Kyi is not as powerless or voiceless as she wants international observers to believe. After all she did fight for democracy in the country and she did so employing the language of equality, freedom and human rights. She is a powerful national and world figure that can, if she chooses to, raise her voice against the atrocities the Rohingya suffer in Myanmar. But in the face of extreme violence against the Rohingya minority at the hands of over 50 million Buddhists, she has turned a mute spectator to what looks more and more like genocide.
BBC's Fergal Keane and Al Jazeeraa's Mehdi Hasan have called what is happening to the Rohingya ethnic cleansing. In a recent interview of Suu Kyi, Kean had told her "that having covered many conflicts I thought that what I'd seen in Rakhine state amounted to ethnic cleansing," but she refused to budge from her deliberate silence, refused to accept the ugly truth of genocide occurring under her watch, in the very country thta she had fought so hard to liberate from the brutal military junta.
Keane has compared the plight of the Rohingya to what he had seen elsewhere saying:
"[O]ne of the most powerful memories I have of ethnic intolerance -- and this is after reporting on Rwanda and atrocities in the Balkans -- is seeing the plight of the Rohingya penned into a ghetto in Sitwwe, the Capital of Rakhine, and listening to the toxic rhetoric of Buddhist monks near a burned out Muslim village."
Suu Kyi's response to Rohingyas' tragic situation has been totally disappointing. After a long and glorious struggle for freedom and democracy for the Myanmar people, she has turned into an apologist for the ethnic cleansing of an entire minority. Even more disappointing has been the reaction, rather the non reaction, of the Western leaders who had once hailed her as an apostle of freedom, democracy and human rights. While one doesn't expect much from the gong show that is Trump Presidency, one would have expected more than mere silence from Canada's Trudeau, Germany's Merkel, Britain's May and France's Hollande.
Justin Trudeau had promised to be different and more engaged than his predecessor on the world stage. In many respects he has lived up to that promise. It was disappointing though to hear his hasty endorsement of Donald Trump's dictum of regime change in Syria despite the horrible consequences of the same in Iraq and Libya for which the two countries and the west continue to pay a heavy price. On the other hand it has been disheartening to witness his complete and utter silence on the violently persecuted, threatened and frightened Rohingya.
Canada's recent honouring of the Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai with Canadian citizenship reminded us that she joined five previous honourees including Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has already told Suu Kyi of her "moral duty...to speak more openly" on the plight of the Rohingya and "to work to reduce the tension" between them and the Buddhist majority in Myanmar.
As prime minister of Canada and as a Canadian citizen, Trudeau should follow the honourary Canadian Dalai Lama's example and ask the honorary Canadian Aung San Suu Kyi to stand up and be counted for the besieged Rohingya of her own country; that would send a strong message that Canada takes its honorary citizenships very seriously; and that it expects, as it must, even our honorary citizens to stand strong for peace and diversity, no matter what the consequences.
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