Heroes have feet of clay - The case of Aung San Suu Kyi

Twelve Nobel Laureates ranging from octogenarian Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the young Malala Yousufzai have so far called upon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and State Counselor in Myanmar, to help stop the killings of Rohingyas in her country. The lady has chosen to exercise a sphinx like silence on their request which borders on the imperious.

In this, she follows her father, General Aung San, who did not see fit to invite the Rohingya to the Panglong discussions in 1947. The Panglong discussions were meant to mould the ethnic groups into the new Union of Burma.

During the Second World War, the Arakan or Rakhine state, was one of the frontlines of the South East Asian theatre of war. The Rohingyas fought against the Japanese imperial forces on the side of the British and the allies. The ethnic Burmans and the Rakhine Buddhists in Arakan fought on the side of the Japanese. Many atrocities were committed by both sides during 1942-1943.

It was only for a short period in the 1950s that there were attempts to be more accommodating of the Rohingya as peoples of Burma. The U Nu government recognized 144 ethnic groups in Burma. General Ne Win after his military coup pared down the list of recognized ethnic groups to 135. The Rohingyas were excluded.

An estimated between one and 1.5 million Rohingyas in Rakhine State in Myanmar are concentrated in the three townships of North Rakhine State – Maungdaw, Buthidaung and Rathedaung.

The word ‘Rohingya’ is a historical name for the Muslim Arakanese. There is still a Muslim village in Akyab city, now known as Sittwe, by the name of Rohingya. The old name for Rakhine State was Rohang from which the term Rohingya was derived. Today, this term, Rohingya, has become contentious. The Rohingyas settled in Burma in the ninth century, since then they have mixed with Bengalis, Persians, Mughuls, Turks and Pathans.

In 1948, Rohingyas were not subject to laws such as the Foreigner Act (Indian Act III, 1846), the Registration of Foreigners Act (Burma Act VII, 1940) and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1948) related to Registration of Foreigners before or after Burma’s independence. Under the national quota, Rohingya representatives were elected during the colonial administration from North Arakan as Burmese nationals. In 1946, as an indigenous people, General Aung San assured full rights and privileges to Muslim Rohingyas saying that native people should not be divided. But he soon resiled from this position.

After Ne Win seized power, he dismantled Rohingya social and political organizations in 1962. In 1977, the military registered all citizens and, more than 200,000 Rohingyas had to leave for Bangladesh in 1978. Rohingyas were forced to leave for East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in four main periods: the late 1700s and early 1800s, the 1940s and 1978.

This was followed by further expulsions in 1991 and 1992 and again in 2012. These four waves of forced displacement in fact reconfirm that the Rohingya have been living in Burma for centuries and it gives the lie to the claims of the Myanmar government and Buddhist fundamentalists that they are migrants from Bengal.

Calling for the revocation of the Nobel Peace prize is a red herring. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is allegedly antiseptically neutral. If the international community was serious, instead of wringing its hands in mock horror, it could take a number of calibrated and incremental steps against both Daw Suu Kyi and the Burmese military.

To begin with, the United Kingdom and all other democratic countries stop export of all weaponry and armaments that can be used against civilians. The UK, in particular, should immediately stop all arms training being provided to the Burmese military. An asset freeze of her and the military generals in all European and North American jurisdictions and offshore havens will be a shot across the bows. This can be followed by a travel ban against her and senior army officials.

If this does not halt the massacres of the Rohingya, a resolution could be brought to the United Nations Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The Genocide convention can also be invoked.

In the meanwhile, citizens groups in Europe could file cases against Aung San Suu Kyi and the military using the universal jurisdiction of the UN Torture convention. The Spanish legal, system which is conducive to hearing international human rights crimes, must be approached. In the US, for starters, cases can be filed under the Alien Torts Claims Act. The Japanese must be pressured to impose sanctions.

The Thais are not too happy with what is happening in Shan state or Kachin state. The Chinese must be reminded that their concern cannot be confined hermetically to the Kokang area. India as usual is adrift in the Arakan sea as far as policy on Myanmar is concerned.

Following the excellent initiative of Turkey, the international community must provide all humanitarian and financial assistance to Bangladesh to look after the Rohingya refugees.

The world wrung its hands in seeming helplessness when Rwanda and Bosnia happened. Crocodile tears are not enough to save the Rohingya. The time now is for resolute action against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military.

As the great Irish writer, James Joyce in his epic, Ulysses, said, “They discovered to their vast discomfiture that their idol had feet of clay, after placing him upon a pedestal,” nothing could be more apt to describe Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate, State Counselor in Myanmar today.

The author is with the Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. A Hindi version of this article appeared on BBC's Hindi website (

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