Burma’s BB?

Burmese government’s treatment of Rohingyas under Suu Kyi should be seen through the lens of cultural genocide


Mohammad Zia Adnan May 31, 2016
The writer is based in Princeton, New Jersey. He tweets @mziaadnan

The old adage goes that names have power. For almost 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has been the face of an alternative Myanmar, the modern, moderate, Oxford-educated antithesis to the chauvinistic military junta that has ruled the country for decades. She is no ordinary opposition leader; the highs and lows of her life story could make any Hollywood scriptwriter weak at the knees. In Myanmar, she is a goddess, a saint, anointed with the holy oil of Western approval and backing.

But Ms Suu Kyi, like countless other Asian dynasts, owes her political career to the first two parts of her name. She is the daughter of General Aung San, a Quaid-e-Azam-type figure in modern Burma who formed the country’s army and negotiated independence. So when Ms Suu Kyi asked the US ambassador this past month not to use the name “Rohingya” after the embassy used the term in a letter of condolence, she was well aware of the fact that depriving a community of its name is to deprive it of its power. Not that the Rohingya had any power to begin with, though. Myanmar and Pakistan have somewhat similar trajectories — the long shadow of British colonialism, pseudo-democratic experiments, a tug of war between dictators and demagogues, ethnic tensions, the list goes on. This past month, The New York Times published an editorial on Ms Suu Kyi’s disappointing stance on the Rohingya issue: “In the end, the reason Ms Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t want the Americans to say ‘Rohingya’ doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a woman whose name has been synonymous with human rights for a generation, a woman who showed unflinching courage in the face of despotism, has continued an utterly unacceptable policy of the military rulers she succeeded.” Sound like anyone you know?

Similarities aside, Ms Suu Kyi has proven herself to be more well-versed in the art of politicking than living up to the expectations of millions in Myanmar and abroad. Close observers have watched the military junta that she succeeded only last month wreak havoc on the country for years, from switching capitals and changing names to striking down dissent and presiding over a police state that has sanctioned violence and endorsed extremism at the expense of minorities like the Rohingya. More than anything else, the Burmese government’s treatment of the group under both the generalissimos and Ms Suu Kyi should be seen through the lens of cultural genocide, a deplorable human rights catastrophe that Myanmar’s nascent democracy is choosing to ignore. This past week, she met with John Kerry in Naypyidaw after the lifting of some sanctions on Myanmar to discuss, among other things, the Rohingya crisis. In her new capacity as State Counsellor, a PM-type designation created especially for her because of a pesky law drafted into the Constitution that bars her from becoming president, she stated, “All that we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties we are facing and to give us enough space to solve all our problems.” A reasonable enough request, no?

It would be unfair to expect Ms Suu Kyi’s government to simply end all discrimination directed towards the Rohingya, from the Buddhist nationalists in her party all the way down to grassroots-level prejudices that exist within smaller village communities, in an instant. But right after his meeting with her, Kerry met with the head of the country’s armed forces at his headquarters in the capital, a clear indication that the Burmese military is still calling the shots. This fact, coupled with Ms Suu Kyi’s willingness to accept the generals’ constitution and overlook the disastrous impact of their long-standing policies, suggests that the army’s place in politics is not something Myanmar’s great hope is going to challenge. It’s all rather Rawalpindi vs Islamabad circa 1989 if you ask me.

“Why do you build me up (build me up), buttercup, baby, just to let me down (let me down), and mess me around?” or so went the lyrics of The Foundations' 1968 hit. As one listens to the song, it is somehow appropriate to think of it as being addressed to Ms Suu Kyi and other champions of democracy, palatable to the international community as voices of the downtrodden, but once in power, complicit in preserving the status quo and stymieing those unspoken for. Perhaps ‘saints’ like Ms Suu Kyi should remain on the outside looking in, struggling against the forces of evil (military dictatorship, persecution, the proverbial ‘iron fist’), rather than sharing power and turning a blind eye to tyranny, lest the world sees through their cultic ‘can-do-no-wrong’ personas. Because, alas, when saints strike deals with sinners, the God-fearing begin to lose faith. 

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2016.

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COMMENTS (7)

zan | 5 years ago | Reply This is that dumb kid, who think zia ul haq was the greatest leader pakistani has ever seen
Mathew Rand | 5 years ago | Reply Your grandfather would be very proud. Rock on buddy!
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