Is Aung San Suu Kyi being unfairly over-criticised?

 The ‘Rohingyas’ in Myanmar

In the current displacement problem of the ‘Rohingyas’ (called ‘Bengalis’ by the Myanmar government), it would help to remain level-headed and try to gain an objective picture by looking at the wider context. This is what a multi-author  article in The Conversation does. It is titled ‘Religion is not the only reason Rohingyas are being forced out of Myanmar’, pointing out that ‘religious and ethnic differences have been widely considered the leading cause of the persecution. But it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that there are not other factors at play. Especially given that Myanmar is home to 135 ethnic groups’.

The authors underline that ‘it is also critical to look beyond religious and ethnic differences towards other root causes of persecution, vulnerability and displacement. We must consider vested political and economic interests as contributing factors to forced displacement in Myanmar, not just of the Rohingya people but of other minorities such as the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, and the Mon.’(italics added)

Several of these minorities have an equally painful and long history of displacement, and there are a host of other factors that are responsible for this state of affairs. For example, ‘land grabbing and confiscation in Myanmar is widespread. It is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1990s, military juntas have been taking away the land of smallholders across the country, without any compensation and regardless of ethnicity or religious status.  Land has often been acquired for “development” projects, including military base expansions, natural resource exploitation and extraction, large agriculture projects, infrastructure and tourism. For example, in Kachin state the military confiscated more than 500 acres of villagers’ land to support extensive gold mining.’

Therefore, as is argued in the article, ‘the tragedy of the Rohingya is part of a bigger picture which sees the oppression and displacement of minorities across Myanmar and into neighbouring countries. The relevance and complexity of religious and ethnic issues in Myanmar are undeniable. But we cannot ignore the political and economic context and the root causes of displacement that often go undetected.’

Among the responses to this article, one draws attention to the fact that ‘too many people are expecting miracles from the NLD Government and The Lady… for democratic agencies to succeed after fifty years of repression would be a miracle! NLD and The Lady have made clear their policies for surviving and nurturing the Union – peace, cooperation, justice (PCJ). P and therefore C are threatened every day by about ten armed organisations, all with ethnic-based hopes and some with strong, rich backers. The Army generally see this period as a struggle to adapt to power sharing with the elected Government and to preserve the Union.’

After all, as The Economist has noted, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a victim of persecution by past military regimes… has little authority over the army, which granted itself the right to regulate itself (and the police)’ and that she ‘cannot rein in the army’ because ‘the army is not easy to influence’.

Expecting her to solve a problem which is not of her making and has been going on for over a century fuelled by a complex of regional, political, military, and economic factors with ethnicity and religion thrown in is totally unrealistic. She is justified in not attending the UN General Assembly and be made the scapegoat of bearing a burden which others should assume responsibility for. For long years she has been repressed by the Army and kept under arrest, being refused even the right to leave the country to visit her husband who was dying of terminal cancer in England. There is only so much that a human being can bear.

In spite of this, she persevered in pursuing the political struggle that eventually saw, last year, a relative victory of democracy in Myanmar. Can she take the risk of confronting the powerful army anew and democracy losing out again?

Yes, the refugees’ plight must be addressed, and Bangladesh must be helped to cope with the influx. This is what India is doing, ‘after Dhaka briefed New Delhi about the problems faced by it due to the influx of refugees from Myanmar’. This is according to Swarajya, which goes on to add that ‘an Indian aircraft will carry the first consignment of humanitarian assistance tomorrow… It will land at Chittagong airport at 11 am… Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka Harsh Vardhan Shringla would hand over the relief materials to Bangladesh’s Road Transport and Bridges Minister and Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader.’

It is this kind of cooperation which is the most pragmatic approach under the circumstances, instead of seeking to stigmatise and pour calumny over a Lady who has been a martyr long enough, and in whose shoes it would be impossible to find anybody else to fit.


  • Published in print edition on 15 September 2017

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