Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over the plight of a million Rohingyas is globally deplored. There are calls to take back her Nobel Prize. A disappointed Canadian government has already stripped her of her honorary Canadian citizenship.
The assumption is that the National League for Democracy leader dare not speak her mind lest the military in Myanmar deprive her of whatever authority she enjoys as State Counsellor, a position akin to that of a Prime Minister. Having reread Maurice Collis’ Trials in Burma, a book I enjoyed as a schoolboy, I can think of an even less flattering explanation. Like a true Burmese, Ms Suu Kyi probably doesn’t disagree with her countrymen’s condemnation of the Rohingya.
Collis spent 22 years in Burma as a perceptive and humane member of the Indian Civil Service, courageously risking both British wrath and Burmese anger. Describing the massacre of Indians on May 26, 1930, when he was the district magistrate of Rangoon, he says the Burmese proletariat rejoiced. “They had shown the Indians their place … Well, they had been taught a lesson! Short of violence to the Indians, these views were shared by upper class Burmans, the clerks, the officials, the graduates, and the landowners.” Jumping to the present, perhaps also by the only Nobel laureate in Burma that is now Myanmar.
One reason for her disinterest in the Rohingyas’ plight could be religious. Despite marrying an Englishman, Ms Suu Kyi remains a Buddhist. Although there are a handful of Hindus among them, the Rohingya are overwhelmingly Muslim. Ethnically, they are South Asians. Their demand for recognition as Myanmarese questions the country’s identity as a Mongolian, Buddhist Southeast Asian nation like Thailand or Cambodia. Significantly, Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997 but has yet to respond to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s standing invitation. Race and religion make a powerful brew. Erstwhile South Vietnam and Sri Lanka showed how fanatically Buddhist priests can fight for identity rooted in race and religion.
Rohingyas are regarded as Indian, and Indians have been resented ever since the British conquered Myanmar, treated Arakan as part of the Bengal presidency, and made the entire country a province of India. All this must rankle with Ms Suu Kyi as with all Myanmarese. The officially sponsored pogroms against Rohingyas, which started in 1978, historically enjoy mob sanction. In return, the mob assumes official approval for its murderous frenzy.
“I didn’t think that there was any objection to killing Indians,” a young Burmese told Collis during the 1930 massacre. “The government is against them.” Adding that the Burmese “believed” the British were “on their side”, Collis admits that some British officers had no time for Indian settlers whom “the Burmese regarded as little better than rats, which had swarmed into the country to the detriment of the working classes of the native population”. At least 500 Indians were slaughtered, their homes were vandalised and looted, and 7,000 Indians fled for safety to Rangoon’s old lunatic asylum, where they cowered in terror in accommodation meant for just 500. Well might they fear for their lives, for Collis records how Indians “had been hunted around the town like vermin and their women ripped up”.
Many factors accounted for the carnage. A lighter-skinned race felt superior to darker people. Resentment of the British conquerors was transferred to their Indian neighbours, especially since the British seemed to regard Indians as politically more advanced. Economic disparities rankled too. All Burmese from peasant to landowner nursed a grudge against Indians in Burma. Rickshaw-puller and barrister, scavenger and judge, shopkeeper and civil servant aroused equal anger. They were seen as troublesome economic refugees from impoverished South Asia. For all their pretensions to Arab and Mughal lineage, and claims to a 1,000-year history in Myanmar, the hapless Rohingya is heir to this bitter hostility.
Ms Suu Kyi has suffered greatly for her people. She was under house arrest for 15 years. She has sacrificed married life. She lost touch with her children. But it happened fortuitously. She was visiting her ailing mother when Myanmar called. She responded to the people’s clamour for a representative government that recognised their rights. If anything, that identified her even more closely with the passions that move the masses.
Myanmar’s stringent laws cater to these fundamentalist urges. Rohingyas are denied citizenship under the 1982 nationality law which, says Human Rights Watch, “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality”. The community is not recognised as one of the country’s eight “national indigenous races”. Denied freedom of movement, they are excluded from state education and civil service jobs. Rohingya are viewed as illegal immigrants. That robs charges of “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” of some of their moral force.
An early episode highlighted Ms Suu Kyi’s populist pragmatism. U Nu, the democratically-elected former Prime Minister of Burma, suggested forming an interim government with other Opposition leaders. Rajiv Gandhi reportedly promised India’s support. Ms Suu Kyi categorically rejected the plan, saying “the future of the Opposition would be decided by masses of the people”.
Her murdered father was a tough pragmatist who founded the Communist Party of Burma, served the British as premier of the Crown Colony of Burma, collaborated with the Japanese during the Second World War, and is revered as founder of the Tatmadaw (the armed forces) which still rules Myanmar today. His junior, Ne Win, Burma’s dictator from 1962 to 1981 after a two-year stint as Prime Minister, always referred to her as “my leader’s daughter”. Frail and delicate Aung San Suu Kyi might look, but she is her father’s daughter. She will do nothing to damage her inheritance or alienate the masses.