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Hugh Fitzgerald: In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi Does Not Deserve the Media’s Malediction

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Surprising everyone, Amnesty International recently accused the Rohingya — the Muslims in Myanmar who have been unceasingly depicted, over the past year, as innocent victims of brutal Burmese Buddhists — of murdering at least 99 Hindus in two separate massacres of men, women, and children. These massacres date from August, 2017, which is also when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched coordinated attacks on 24 police posts and the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion army base in Rakhine State, leaving 71 Buddhist police and soldiers dead. These attacks by the Rohingya were part of a long series of attacks; the Rohingya had been fighting the Buddhist government from 1947 to 1961, with intermittent attacks thereafter — all in order to be able to secede, in the hope of joining East Pakistani (from 1971 on, Bangladesh). These August 2017 attacks set off a huge conflict between the Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya in the northern Rakhine State, which led to as many as 700,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh.

The Myanmar Buddhists claim that this latest announcement by Amnesty International will not be the last about massacres by, rather than of, the Rohingya. More reports of attacks on Buddhists and Hindus, they say, will be coming out. This latest  information at least should give the international media pause. Just possibly Aung San Sui Kyi, who had been lionized for years, even won a Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the military despots who ran Myanmar, may have had a point when she refused to condemn outright her own people for their fear of the Rohingya. Possibly she knew more about the situation than the global scolds who condemned her and demanded that she be stripped of her Nobel Prize for not giving her full support to the Rohingya.

Without in any way denying the brutality of the treatment Buddhists have recently inflicted on the Rohingya, we should at least be able to agree that the situation was — is — more complicated than many have thought. The Muslim massacres of both the Buddhist police and soldiers, and of Hindu villagers (about which we have just learned) took place before, and apparently provoked, the large-scale attacks on the Rohingya since August 2017.

Let’s revisit what was known about the Rohingya, and Aung San Suu Kyi, before this latest news arrived from Amnesty International about the massacre of Hindu villagers.

According to almost all reports from non-Burmese, the attacks on the Rohingya since last August have been completely indefensible and, indeed, inexplicable, the result of hysteria – assumed to be without any conceivable justification – whipped up by Buddhist monks, headed by a sinister senior monk, Ashin Parathu, who was accused by The Guardian of “stoking religious hatred across Burma. His paranoia and fear, muddled with racist stereotypes and unfounded rumors, have helped to incite violence and spread disinformation.”

Particularly disappointing for many reporters was what they regarded as the unforgivable silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, currently the head of the Myanmar government. For Aung San Suu Kyi was formerly the leader of the nonviolent opposition to the Burmese military, placed under house arrest by the generals, then freed and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. For more than two decades she was, for her continued defiance of the generals, and willingness to endure that house arrest, a darling of the international media. She has held a number of important government posts and is now both Foreign Minister and State Counsellor (equivalent to Prime Minister) in Myanmar.

But in her continuing refusal to condemn outright the attacks on the Rohingya, and in her insistence that in Myanmar there has been “violence on both sides,” Aung San Suu Kyi is now seen by many outside Myanmar in quite another light. Many have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence on the 2012 Rakhine State riots, when Buddhists attacked Muslims, and castigate her for what they see as her general indifference to the ongoing mistreatment of the Rohingya by Burmese Buddhists. Twenty-three Nobel laureates and other “peace activists” signed a letter in November 2016 asking Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out about the Rohingya: “Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas,” their Open Letter states. “Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with the primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”

Prime Minister Suu Kyi has refused to address accusations that the Muslim Rohingya may be victims of crimes against humanity, and in an interview with the BBC’s Misha Husain she refused to condemn violence against the Rohingya and denied that Muslims in Myanmar have been subject to ethnic cleansing. She insisted that the tensions in her country were due to a “climate of fear” caused by a “worldwide perception that global Muslim power is very great.” And apparently, according to some reports, she was angry that the BBC had chosen a Muslim to interview her.

What shall we make of this attitude from someone who had previously been put on a Nobel Peace Prize pedestal? Did she  metamorphose from being a moral exemplar to becoming a moral monster who needed correction, someone who, as researchers on state crime at St. Mary’s University in London claim, was “legitimising genocide”? Did she praise the attacks on the Rohingya? Of course not. Did she encourage them to leave Myanmar? No. All she did was determinedly state that the issue was more complicated than the outside world realized. .It’s not surprising that for the giddy globe’s Great and Good, as The Economist put it, her “halo has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists, disappointed at her failure to make a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority” and to “give details on how her government intends to resolve the violence faced by the long-persecuted Muslim minority.” That Muslim minority had for fifteen years, from 1947 to 1961, been attacking Buddhist soldiers in an attempt to gain independence; that helps explain its “persecution.” Might it just be conceivable that the well-educated Burmese liberal Aung San Suu Kyi knows more about the Rohingyas, and the past history of Muslims in her own country, Myanmar, than do her critics, and that that knowledge makes her more studied and nuanced in her judgments, more doubtful about the Rohingya claims of innocent victimhood, and more sympathetic to the fears of the Buddhists of Myanmar?

If we examine the last 150 years of Burmese history, we may find that Madame Suu Kyi has more of a point than her foreign critics think. In 1826, after the Anglo-Burmese War, the British annexed Arakan (Rakhine State), where many of the 1.3 million Rohngyas now in Myanmar still live, to British India. And they began to encourage Indians, mainly Muslims, to move into Arakan from Bengal as cheap farm labor. They continued to encourage this migration throughout the nineteenth-century. In Akyab District, the capital of Aragon, according to the British censuses of 1872 and 1911, there was an increase in the Muslim population from 58,255 to 178,647, a tripling within forty years. At the beginning of the 20th century, migrants from Bengal were still arriving in Burma at the rate of a quarter million per year. In the peak year of 1927, 480,000 people arrived in Burma, with Rangoon in that year surpassing New York City as the greatest migration port in the world. And many of these migrants were Indian Muslims.

The Buddhist Burmese looked on helplessly at the arrival of these hundreds of thousands of Muslims, but there was nothing they could do against the policy of their British colonial masters. During World War II, the British retreat in the face of the Japanese led to a power vacuum, and simmering inter-communal tensions erupted, with the Arakanese Massacres of 1942, when 50,000 Buddhists were killed by the Rohingyas in Rakhine (Arakan) state. The Buddhists managed to mount a resistance, and some claim that they killed as many as 40,000 Rohingyas in revenge raids.

In May 1946, Rohingya leaders met with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Muslim leader who founded modern Pakistan, and asked that part of Rakhine state be annexed by East Pakistan. Then, when Jinnah refused to interfere in Burmese matters, they founded the Mujahid Party in in northern Arakan in 1947. The aim of the Mujahid party was initially to create an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. The local mujahideen – that’s what the Rohingya warriors proudly called themselves — fought government forces in an attempt to have the mostly Rohingya-populated Mayu peninsula in northern Rakhine State secede from Myanmar (then Burma), and after that secession, the Rohingyas hoped that territory would be annexed by East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). Fighting between the Rohingya and the Burmese state, then, is not a new thing; it has been going on intermittently since 1947. The Rohingya revolt eventually lost momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and many of the Rohingya surrendered to government forces.

But the Muslim insurrection by the Rohingya did not disappear. It was revived in the 1970s, which in turn led to the Burmese government mounting, in 1978, a huge military operation (Operation King Dragon) that inflicted great damage on the mujahideen, and bought a decade of relative calm. But again the Rohingya rose up against the Burmese state, and in the 1990s the “Rohingya Solidarity Organisation” attacked Burmese authorities near the border with Bangladesh. In other words, this insurgency by the Muslim Rohingya has been going on – waxing and waning – for more than half a century. It is in that context that Buddhist fears of a Muslim takeover of northern Myanmar should be viewed, and taken seriously. The Burmese monks who have since August 2017  been whipping up anti-Rohingya sentiment, and attacks on them, are not behaving out of motiveless malignity; they are keenly aware of all this history. They did not want the Rohingyas to obtain citizenship, for they feared – as so many outside Myanmar do not comprehend – being swamped by Muslims outbreeding the Unbelievers. They look around the world, see that 50 million Muslims are now in Europe, find that everywhere the non-Muslims seem to diminish demographically while Muslims are steadily (“Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion”) increasing, and don’t want the same thing happening in Myanmar, which they regard as the last real redoubt of Buddhism.

The latest news, about the Rohingya massacre of Hindu villagers in August 2017, ought to give global scolds pause. Is it possible that the Rohingya are not quite as angelically innocent as they have been depicted? And at this point, would a withdrawal of the media’s malediction of Aung San Suu Kyi be too much to ask?

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