Has Myanmar’s iconic leader taken genocide lessons from Israel?
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most famous women in the world. She is a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize and hailed as “the Mandela of Asia” because of her human rights record. However, when we look at her continual lack of concern about the plight of the Rohingya people in the former Burma, you have to question the level of her compassion and integrity.
You may gasp at this and I must admit that I never thought that I would ever write that about such an iconic figure. I, like tens of thousands of others around the world, campaigned long and hard to have the pro-democracy leader freed from the shackles of the Burmese junta which kept her under house arrest for years.
When she was finally released to lead her country to a better future there were tears in my eyes, but now I am completely bewildered by her deathly silence about the pitiful state of the Rohingyas living in squalor and inhumane conditions in Myanmar.
The military junta in Burma-Myanmar refused to acknowledge the existence of the Rohingyas and would only ever refer to them as “Bangladeshis”. Now, under the political leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has gone one step further by banning the use of the word Rohingya, as if 1.1 million people have just disappeared. One has to ask if she and the generals still lurking in the background are following the Israeli manual on how to deal with unwanted citizens and ethnic minorities.
Let’s not forget that Israel’s founding Prime Minster David Ben-Gurion maintained close ties with Burma. In December 1961 he was given the full red carpet treatment during a state visit. Shortly before boarding his flight he gave a press conference: “I am leaving today for a new country but not a strange one; in all of Asia, there is no more friendly nation to Israel than Burma. Israel and Burma are two old countries with old histories which renewed their independence in 1948.”
According to Ben-Gurion, “Both [Israel and Burma] are democratic and both follow the same principle in foreign relations – promoting friendly relations and mutual aid with all peace-loving countries irrespective of their internal regimes and without injuring the interests of any other country; loyal to international cooperation based on United Nations principles.”
Of course the state visits by Israeli leaders didn’t stop at Ben-Gurion; Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Golda Meir all went to Burma along with a string of other politicians. Others, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have extended hospitality to Burmese-Myanmar leaders in Tel Aviv.
By flattening more than 530 Arab towns and villages since 1948, controlling the movement of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza and airbrushing Palestinian culture, cuisine and lifestyle from everyday life, some say that the Israelis have been engaged in a slow genocide against the Palestinian people. Now I’m wondering if they’ve handed over the genocide manual to Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar.
The official narrative pushed out to the media is that there is religious tension between Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s Buddhists and that that is the problem. This is untrue. The state-sponsored persecution and oppression of the Rohingya people has gone on for decades. They are denied citizenship and ready access to health care and hospitals, and they have limits placed on their right to free movement and many other basic human rights. Religious persecution has been the order of the day along with land confiscations, forced labour, arbitrary taxation, house demolitions and restrictions on marriage, work and education. These are all forms of state oppression and tyranny the same as or similar to those encountered by Palestinians at the hands of Israel; now they’re being endured by the Rohingyas.
Last year, Asia witnessed a huge refugee crisis when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas were exploited by people smugglers and took the seas in unseaworthy vessels. Abandoned by the smugglers their boats sailed aimlessly for weeks on end; without the food thrown to them by local fishermen the death toll as they starved would have been much higher.
It was only after an international outcry that neighbouring countries finally offered refuge to the Rohingya boat people, but then they forced them to live in squalid refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh. Around 150,000 live in conditions that are little better than concentration camps, and reports of mass graves surfaced last year.
Meanwhile, the ever-fragrant female “Mandela of Asia” smiles sweetly during less than robust press interviews and obfuscates at the very mention of the Rohingya people. What’s worse is that she gets away with it because most of the media still eulogises the icon who world leaders and statesmen simpered over when she was released.
The so-called head of state in Myanmar’s first “democratically elected government since 1962” maintains silence over the plight of the Rohingyas. Recently, she appeared a little tetchy when asked about them by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was told to be more cautious over the “sensitive issue”. Even the Dalai Lama has been blanked by the diminutive leader after he called publicly and privately on several occasions for her to show compassion and act to stop the persecution.
If she has taken genocide lessons from the Israelis, then the State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi has learned well. She has now declared that her government will not use the term “Rohingya” when referring to the “Muslim community” in Rakhine State. It is an echo of the occasion when former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared infamously that there was “no such thing as Palestinians.”
“Suu Kyi does not use the terms ‘Rohingya’ or ‘Bengali’,” announced Aye Aye Soe, the deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee. “The words of war do not support the current situation. Now, citizenship is under close scrutiny, and the use of the terms does not support the scrutiny process for citizenship. Suu Kyi requested that UN officials and other guests not use these controversial terms in case they should lead to conflict.”
As far as chutzpah goes, some might say that Aung San Suu Kyi has outdone the Israelis in her determination to shut down discussion or questions about the Rohingyas. In her world, it seems, they simply do not exist.
Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued an 18-page report on 20 June calling for a halt to discrimination against Rohingyas and human rights violations when Aung San Suu Kyi and Yanghee Lee met. There were warnings that crimes against humanity were suspected of being committed. The UN official criticised the Myanmar government for not releasing the plans for the “peace and stability and development implementation work committee” for Rakhine State, led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Mary Scully is a veteran of political activism, including in the anti-war, women’s rights, civil rights and Palestinian solidarity movements; she was blunt about Aung San Suu Kyi: “She won that election through a loathsome compromise with the military junta and by supporting their neoliberal policies bringing in foreign investment and mining projects at the expense of farmers and rural workers.”
Some of those farmers and villagers were way ahead of the rest of the world in understanding her betrayals, she explained. “They booed her out of town for saying the expropriations of their lands and destruction of the environment were ‘for the greater good’. Now the New York Times reports that in a recent meeting, Suu Kyi advised the US ambassador against using the term ‘Rohingya’ to describe the Muslim people of Myanmar because her government does not recognise them as citizens.”
Scully, who is also running as an independent socialist candidate for US president later this year, added: “Using the same kind of marble-mouthed deceits she used to blither to reporters, her representative told the ambassador, ‘We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognised as among the 135 official ethnic groups. Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems’.”
If Aung San Suu Kyi has indeed studied Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians then the student is on her way to becoming the master. Or, as Scully sees it: “Solidarity with Rohingya Muslims against genocide and for justice means educating about their struggle against genocide and part of that education requires exposing the murderous duplicity and collusion of Suu Kyi.”
Strong words, but given the evidence that is coming out about Aung San Suu Kyi, it is hard to see how the veteran campaigner could have said anything less.