The Rohingya Crisis - Myanmar - Aung San Suu Kyi's Inaction

Updated on November 9, 2019


All anthropologists proclaim race to be a social construct. What this means is that race is an issue of identity and not biological in nature. Blackness, whiteness or brownness are defined differently everywhere we go. A brown person could be defined as white in some countries, while black in others. Persons from one race can be raised by parents from another race and not exhibit any behaviors from their original ethnicity.

Religion is another area which humans find every reason imaginable to differentiate themselves from others. Can it be that deep self-interest masquerades as morality or religious fervor? Religion more and more has become a source of conflict, although some faiths purportedly preach spirituality, harmony and love for our neighbors.

Unfortunately, society doesn't go along with these arguments, as it seeks to define race and religion in strict and rigid terms. Because of this, we see unnecessary divisions along racial and religious lines that continually cause consternation, disquietude and conflict.

This article is about an ethnic, racial and cultural struggle that has been unfolding in Myanmar for decades, but one which has burst into people's consciousness in recent years by the plight of the Rohingya people. It is also about Myanmar, and a global political star and icon who has chosen to stay quiet throughout this crisis.

Rohingyas at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, October 2017
Rohingyas at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, October 2017 | Source

The Rohingya Crisis

Somewhere between the Rahkine State of Myanmar and the State of Tripura in Bangladesh, are scattered a stateless and deprived people known as the Rohingya. They are said to number close to a million and a half, although no one knows for sure. Dressed in their traditional Indo-Burmese style attire dating back hundreds of years; gaunt from lack of proper nutrition; subjected to persecution from the Myanmar government, they are the victims of what the UN has called ethnic cleansing. Others have called it genocide.

They are an ethnic group comprised mostly of Muslims and a Hindu minority, who some claim have lived in Myanmar since the 13th century. In spite of this, Myanmar’s has refused to recognize them as one of its 135 official ethnic groups, rendering them without a country. Over the course of many years, ongoing violence and persecution by the government have caused them to flee to neighboring countries, but recently, mostly to Bangladesh.

Since late August of 2017, it has been reported that close to 700,000 Muslim Rohingya have fled the persecution by the military.

During British rule from 1824 to 1948, there was significant migration of laborers from India and Bangladesh to Burma (now called Myanmar.) During this time the British administered Burma as a province of India, consequently, considering this type of migration as internal. However the majority of the native population viewed any group ethnically different, specially those originating from outside the country, as unwelcome.

After independence, the government considered any immigration during British rule to be illegal, and used this rationale to deny citizenship to the Rohingya. Complicating matters, the Buddhist population considered the Rohingya to be Bengali, which they adamantly reject.

In 1948, in accordance with the Union Citizenship Act, which defined the ethnicities able to gain citizenship, the Rohingya were not included. While the act allowed families who had lived in Myanmar for at least two generations to gain identity cards, or even citizenship under the generational provision, things dramatically changed for them after the 1962 military coup. At this time, all citizens were required to obtain registration documents, but the Rohingya were only given foreign identity cards, turning them into immigrants, limiting the jobs and education they could obtain.

Myanmar, a majority Buddhists country, has a long history of persecution against Muslim and Christian populations. After the military coup, however, the Rohingya were particularly targeted. Besides the difference in religion, there is a high probability the rejection and persecution they have experienced includes a racial component. The majority of Burmese people, including those from other ethnic groups are mostly Tibeto-Burman, while the Rohingya are closer to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who are Indo-Aryan. Both ethnic groups have distinctly different facial features and skin color, setting the Rohingya apart from the rest of the country.

Emergency food, drinking water and shelter to help people displaced in Rakhine State, western Burma, 2012.
Emergency food, drinking water and shelter to help people displaced in Rakhine State, western Burma, 2012. | Source

The Plight of the Rohingya

The plight of the Rohingya has become a sad commentary on the state of the world, in which so much division and deviousness can surface due to different views on nation, nationality, religion, ethnicity and race. In the case of the Myanmar government, their horrid approach to this question, has been the attempted obliteration of not only a people but their history and identity.

Some of the disdain and loathing the government feels toward this ethnic group, could be traced to the time of British rule when Muslim minority populations were favored over the Buddhist majority. Especially, when in World War ll the British recruited Rohingya to fight the Japanese, meanwhile the Buddhist population felt some affinity to the Japanese and animosity to colonial rule. This caused many lasting scars evident today.

The latest spate of violence can be traced to March of 2019, when nine police officers were murdered in Rahkine by a militant group unrelated to the Rohingya. The army lashed out by systematically burning villages, inflicting high civilian casualties, and placing mines along the border with Bangladesh where Rohingya refugees have fled. However, previous violence was in 2017 when a bloody military crackdown forced some 740,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh, prompting the UN at the time to call for prosecution of the top generals involved, for crimes against humanity.

Over the last few years the casualties among the Rohingya Muslims continue to rise. Some estimates put the number of death well over 100,000 and the missing into the tens of thousands. Recent reports have emerged of 40,000 parents missing, and feared dead. This has left tens of thousands of children without parents.

Burma / Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been governed directly or indirectly by a military junta since March 2nd 1962, when the military led by General Ne Win took control through a coup d’état. Between the time of the military coup and 1974 the government conducted a complete take over of all economic and media activity in a soviet style nationalization they called Burmese Way to Socialism; an approach to government similar to Communism in all aspects except its belief in Buddhism. Communism in its purest form on the other hand is atheist at its core, and utilizes Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels philosophy of dialectical materialism in order to explain the world and nature.

Due to its extreme economic approach, Burma remained one of the poorest countries in Asia until March of 2011 when the military was forced to cede some of its power once the State Law and Order Restoration Council put in place by General Saw Maung was dissolved. The long running martial law was lifted, allowing for some reforms to take place with relatively free elections.

With the government of President Thein Sein, Burma embarked on major policy reforms to stabalize its currency, liberalize foreign investment laws and taxation, allowing the economy to grow by 8.8%. Since then the economy has been experiencing steady growth averaging 6.5% annually.

Today, in spite of reforms, the military continues to be extremely influential as top cabinet and ministry posts remain under its control, as well as the ownership or majority stakeholder position in all major industrial corporation of the country.

The Bamar people. A Sino-Tibetan race. They represent 71% of the country.
The Bamar people. A Sino-Tibetan race. They represent 71% of the country. | Source

135 Different Ethnic Groups in Burma

Going back to 200 BC, the kingdom of Burma has ranged in geographic size due to flowing frontiers that changed depending on the nations that bordered it. This has meant that over the years some 135 ethnic groups have flourished. After three Anglo-Burmese wars, from 1824–1885, it became a British colony on January 1st 1886.

In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma, displacing the British and brutally occupying the country until 1945. Since then, the country has endured the longest set of continuous and overlapping civil wars in the world. These confrontations have taken place between the military and the many ethnic groups scattered throughout Burma.

One major confrontation has been between government forces and The Arakan Army, a Rakhine insurgent group founded in 2009. Their stated purpose is to protect the Arakan people from government attacks. Unfortunately, the Rohingya have been swept up into the conflict and have become one of the government targets of violence.

Today, the Myanmar government continues to face condemnation for its treatment of the Rohingya people and its continued political oppression. Hope was, however, in the horizon with the ascension to State Councillor of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016. Unfortunately, this was not to happen, as Aung San Suu Kyi has not taken any action to curb the government's violent initiatives .

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Story - A FaIlen Icon

She was born on June 19th, 1945 in Rangoon. Daughter of Major General Aung San, considered Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar and who served as 5th Premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma from 1946 to 1947. Originally the founder of the Communist Party of Burma, he later had a change of heart and became a Social Democratic politician. Originally responsible for bringing about Burma’s independence from British rule on January 4th, 1948, was assassinated six months before independence by political rival Galon U Saw.

Her mother, Khin Kyi, was also a prominent political figure in the newly formed Burmese government serving as a member of parliament in the country’s first post-independence government from 1947 to 1948. Later she became Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960.

After graduating from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi with a degree in politics in 1964, Suu Kyi continued her education at St Hugh’s College of Oxford University, where she obtained a B.A degree in philosophy, politics and economics and an M.A degree in politics in 1968. It was here where she met her future husband Dr. Michael Aris, a British historian who wrote and lectured on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture and history.

Although having worked for the United Nations for three years between 1968 and 1971, her fervor for public service in behalf of her country was born at an early age as a sense of an unfinished legacy following her father’s assassination. Her passion for her country’s freedom was strong enough that upon Michael Aris proposal for marriage, she accepted under the condition that if her country should ever need her, she would have to leave. A condition Dr. Aris readily accepted.


Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris

After their wedding Suu Kyi became the consummate wife. Once their two sons were born she became a doting and engrossed mother. Even after being criticized by her feminist friends, she insisted in doing all household shores, even to the point of ironing Michael Aris’ socks.

In 1988, sixteen years after her marriage, the inevitable happened. She received a call from Rangoon that her mother had had a stroke. She immediately flew home hoping that her emergency visit would at most last a couple of weeks, only to find a city in chaos and turmoil. Confrontations between the public and the military were causing massive casualties among the population. Hospitals were filled with wounded and dying pro-democracy students as well as others who had confronted the military.

Word spread quickly that the daughter of the Great General and Father of the Nation had arrived. She was immediately approached by a delegation of academics to head the democracy movement for which she agreed. Suddenly, the outstanding mother and wife found herself the head of a nation-wide uprising and battle against a brutal military dictatorship.


Aung San Suu Kyi is Received With Open Arms

Suu Kyi embarked on a tour of Burma, during which her popularity soared. During this time the military harassed her at every turn, and arrested and tortured many of her party members. The fear among many, including her husband back in England and all those around her was that she might be assassinated like her father. Eventually in 1989 she was placed under house arrest which came as a relief to those who worried about her, as this meant Suu Kyi would at least be kept safe.

An international campaign led by her husband Michael Aris established her as an international icon in the hopes that the military would not dare harm her. However, the military conducted a savage attack of her in the press pointing to her marriage to a foreigner coupled with sexually crude slanders and other unfounded criticisms. It was obvious that the military junta profoundly feared Aung San Suu Kyi. They feared her charisma, her pedigree and her capability for galvanizing the country in search of democratic ideals.

Suu Kyi remained under house arrest for the next five years meantime that her family stayed in England. During this time she studied the writings of Mandela and Gandhi. Learned to meditate, but more importantly wrote extensively, producing two internationally acclaimed books and collaborating in other books written about her and her struggle for freedom in Burma. During all this time, Suu Kyi could have easily driven to the airport and left Burma, but her steel will and her unbending moral compass prompted her to continue with her fight for human rights and for the plight of the people of Burma.

Between the time that Suu Kyi returned to Burma and Michael Aris death from prostate cancer in 1999, the military government only allowed him to visit his wife twice. In fact from the time she left England and 2012, the military government allowed her two sons to visit her only a handful of times. She described this period of time within the context of the six great aspects of suffering in Buddhism. The fifth of these is “to be parted from those one loves.”

But her unflinching determination to see her mission through of bringing peace, human rights and democracy to her country never allowed her to succumb to the immense pressures the Burmese despotic regime placed upon her. Throughout this time she spent a total of twelve years either under house arrest or imprisoned in secret locations. On November 13, 2010 she was finally freed.

Today she is known as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or Amay Aung San Suu Kyi, two Burmese honorifics assigned to older and revered women which mean Aunt and Mother respectively.

Besides the Nobel Peace price which was awarded to her in 1991, she has been the recipient of numerous awards. Among these are the Rafto Prize for Human Rights, Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, International Simón Bolívar Prize for merit award, Olof Palme Prize for outstanding achievement, and the Bhagwan Mahavir World Peace
Congressional Gold Medal also for outstanding achievement.

In spite of all her political victories, the 2008 Burmese constitutional referendum allowed the military government to pass a clause created expressly for keeping Suu Kyi out of the presidency. The clause stipulates that anyone with a present or past spouse of foreign origin is barred from becoming president of Burma. However, new political victories between 2010 to 2012 released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and gave her party - the National League for Democracy - a majority in parliament.

Although not able to run as president, Aung San Suu Kyi now holds positions as State Counsellor of Myanmar, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of the President’s Office, President of the National League for Democracy Party, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy. These titles make her a sort of Prime Minister or de facto leader of Burma.

Reforms under “The Lady”, as she is often referred to, continue in spite of the military still holding on to a quarter of the seats in parliament originally guaranteed when the 2008 Burmese constitutional referendum was passed. Since her ascension to power, life in Burma has experienced marked improvement. Its GDP grew in 2015 at an annual rate of 7.0% and 8.5% in 2014.

Previously recognized throughout the world as a visionary and transformational leader of unyielding character, fearless in the face of a repressive menace that threatened her life, Aung San Suu Kyi is now facing increased criticism for allowing the government of Myanmar to persecute the Rohingya.

She has repeatedly denied abuses in Rakhine and has used appearances outside of Myanmar to blame the crisis on Rohingya "terrorist activities."

Why Has Aung San Suu Kyi Not Acted to Protect The Rohingya

In August of 2017, Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, issued a comprehensive recommendation, which included lifting all restrictions on the Rohingya and offering them a path to citizenship. However, shortly after the report was released, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police stations, killing 12 security personnel. The army decided to strike back hard and unleashed an attack on the very villages the ARSA insurgents were hiding.

Some experts theorize that these attacks by the military were meant to embarrass Aung San Suu Kyi, by showing that she is powerless to stop or put a check on the military. However, she remained unmoved and did not take any action to help the Rohingya. In the contrary, she publicly downplayed the abuses and even touted the military's talking points about keeping foreign influence away from Myanmar.

Concerning, is also Suu Kyi's unwillingness to meet with any Rohingya leaders since the hostilities started. In fact, years before she became 1st State Counsellor of Myanmar she was quoted as saying: “Once we are in power, all these things will be solved.” This in reference to the ethnic strife and particularly to the Rohingya.

Ben Rhodes of the Atlantic writes that in a conversation with Cheery Zahau, a human-rights activist and an ethnic Chin, she told him "that she believes Suu Kyi’s main preoccupation has been her own ascent, cloaked in the language of human rights, and that she was now jockeying for power with Than Shwe, the 86-year-old former junta leader who still wields enormous influence."

Nevertheless, there could be another plausible explanation. As decades resisting the military dictatorship has shown, Aung San Suu Kyi has immense patience. She could be proceeding cautiously by courting the old guard; get the military comfortable with civilian rule; continue to improve the economy; improve people's lives; acquiesce now but strike later. Considering the love and admiration so many worldwide have for "The Lady", let's hope this is the case.

Aung San Suu Kyi Famous Quotes

Freedom from fear:

"It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

 Aung San Suu Kyi

"If you are feeling helpless, help someone"

Aung San Suu Kyi

"Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than an obvious dictatorship, because it gives people the opportunity to avoid doing at least something about it"

Aung San Suu Kyi

Questions & Answers


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      • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

        JC Scull 

        3 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

        Hello Lorna,

        Thank you.

        I have been following Suu Kyi since 2012, and it pains me she did not take a firm stand against the atrocities the military has committed. I have been struggling with her actions, sometimes hoping there are deeper reasons involved, other times appalled.

        I am afraid you might be right. This could end up being her legacy.

      • Lorna Lamon profile image

        Lorna Lamon 

        3 months ago

        I had always admired Aung San Suu Kyi, however, the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people and her indifference to their plight, just when they needed her support can never be justified.

        I am sure the Rohingya expected more from a recipient of the 'Nobel Peace Prize' and everything it stands for. This was a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing and unfortunately I believe that turning her back on the helpless will be her legacy.

        As usual JC your article is both interesting and informative.

      • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

        JC Scull 

        3 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

        Hello John,

        Thank you for your comment. True! This is a sad situation for these poor people. Suu Kyi is stuck between the proverbial "rock and a hard place." The military only tolerates her because of her enormous following.

        She is constantly navigating between what needs to be done and what the military leaders allow her to do. They still run the show from the background.

        It is a very complicated situation.

        Especially now that the Chinese are pouring billions of dollars into the economy through the purchase of natural gas. This is the type of gravy train, the generals are not going to give up easily. Keep in mind the Chinese have no laws regarding foreign bribes.

      • Jodah profile image

        John Hansen 

        3 months ago from Queensland Australia

        JC, thank you for this very comprehensive article about the Rohingya Crisis and Aug San Suu Kyi's seeming inability or desire to try to rectify it. As you say, hopefully, she is just exercising extreme patience and will act when the time is right. Unfortunately, many Rohingyans will die in the meantime.


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