Burma’s leader turns Rohingya genocide into a both-sides issue

Aung San Suu Kyi sidestepped accountability for the ethnic cleansing occurring under her leadership.

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a televised speech to the nation at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a televised speech to the nation at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

President Trump isn’t the only world leader to mount a “both sides”-style defense when discussing acts of violence. Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of Burma, gave her first major speech addressing the Rohingya crisis on Tuesday, in which she all but equated brutality towards the persecuted minority with efforts mounted in retaliation.

“There has been much concern around the world with regard to the situation in Rakhine. It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence,” Suu Kyi said, speaking to a group of diplomats.

Suu Kyi’s speech comes at a critical moment. The Rohingya, a small Muslim minority who live mostly in Rakhine State, have long suffered discrimination and persecution in Burma, also called Myanmar. But in recent years, the violence has spiked, attracting international condemnation and concern.

Burma, a majority-Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya ethnic recognition, their freedom to marry and worship, and their right to education. Many contend that the community are in fact migrants from Bangladesh and should be sent back  (the Rohingya themselves say they are indigenous to Rakhine State).

When Burma’s military junta ended in 2015, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) came to power, something many hoped would signal a shift for the Rohingya. But Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has done little for the community, ignoring mounting violence against them and downplaying reports of ethnic cleansing.

That inaction has become harder to justify in the past two months. On August 25, members of the just-formed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts in Rakhine State in retaliation for the violence. Approximately 12 security officers and 77 Rohingya were killed in the ensuing violence, triggering a brutal military campaign — soldiers set houses on fire, allegedly targeted civilians, and reportedly drove people from their homes.

More than 420,000 Rohingya have since fled Rakhine State, many spilling into neighboring Bangladesh desperately seeking asylum. According to reports (many of which are limited due to press restrictions in the area), satellite footage shows more than 200 Rohingya villages burned throughout the state.

The tragedy has brought a storm of criticism. International human rights groups have condemned Suu Kyi’s inaction, as have multiple Muslim-majority countries and other high-level officials. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the crisis as a “genocide” in a speech made during the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha, while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in early September that the situation was a clear case of ethnic cleansing.

“When one-third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?” he asked.

Suu Kyi has remained defiant in the face of international criticism. During Tuesday’s speech, she brushed off accusations of military-backed genocide, asserting that “50 percent of the villages of Muslims are intact” in Rakhine state and that “the great majority of Rakhines in the state have not joined the exodus.” She notably avoided using the term “Rohingya” apart from a reference to ARSA — something commentators claim was deliberate.

“She chooses to use the word in relation to a terrorist group, that means that is the only identity that Rohingya will be attached to, from her perspective and she hopes from the international perspective,” Penny Green, a professor of law at Queen Mary University of London, told CNN.

That linguistic choice helped drive home Suu Kyi’s effort to connect ARSA with the tactics being employed by the military. Rather than acknowledging Burma’s campaign against the Rohingya, she chose instead to condemn violence more generally, without owning the onslaught of terror currently facing the Muslim minority.

“[We are] committed to a sustainable solution,” Suu Kyi asserted, “for all communities in this state.”