Strip Aung San Suu Kyi of Her Nobel Prize

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar crossed the border into Bangladesh after days of walking to escape violence in their villages. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar crossed the border into Bangladesh after days of walking to escape violence in their villages. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

Among Westerners, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is often mentioned as a paragon of liberty, in the same breath as Mandela and Gandhi, thanks to her decades-long campaign against Myanmar’s kleptocratic military junta. But to the Rohingya, the Muslim minority now fleeing Myanmar (formerly Burma) by the tens of thousands, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the country’s political leader is the embodiment of evil.

Abdul Kalam is one of the Rohingya. A 33-year-old farmer, he was shot in the leg on Aug. 27 by Burmese soldiers as he fled his home in the coastal village of Maungdaw with his wife, children and neighbors. From his hospital bed in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where he was being cradled by his wife, Mr. Abdul Kalam told me: “Aung San Suu Kyi has done nothing for our village. When she was campaigning for her election, the Rohingya supported her, even though we can’t vote.” He added: “Suu Kyi opened fire on us. If she knocks on our door, then we know what we’ll do.”

Mr. Abdul Kalam is one of countless exhausted and terrified Rohingya who have stumbled out of Myanmar into Bangladesh through the monsoon-lashed rice paddies that line the frontier. They are fleeing a crackdown being carried out by the Myanmar military that bears all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing. They carry with them all they have left: their surviving children, their wounded, the last of their belongings and fresh memories of the killing fields of their homeland. This is the Myanmar of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who, in her capacity as state counselor since 2015, plays a role in overseeing the country’s military.

The Rohingya I’ve spoken with describe attacks that have been planned meticulously. One woman recalled the missiles that were fired into her village in Maungdaw in late August. After the projectiles hit, she said, soldiers arrived and “doused the homes with petrol and set them alight.” She and her young son are now staying with family in Shamlapur, a fishing village in southeastern Bangladesh populated by Rohingya who fled similar horrors in the early 1990s.

On Sunday, I met a woman, Hamida, who stood expressionless beside the road that lines the border with Myanmar. In the distance were the hills where she spent nine days running from soldiers and Buddhist militias. She told me about how soldiers, supported with helicopters, attacked her village with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. She carried a sack marked with Chinese characters. Inside were her only belongings, a few sheets.

Every Rohingya woman I’ve spoken to — and there are many more women, children and elderly than men fleeing across the border — shared a similar story.

According to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and Gen. Min Aung Hllaing, the commander in chief of the military, the Rohingya brought this upon themselves. On Aug. 25, Rohingya militants attacked remote border posts in western Rakhine State, where the Rohingya have lived for at least 150 years. The militants say that they are fighting for the restoration of Rohingya rights and the end to the apartheid-style conditions in which they are living. But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her generals have not explained how a single attack by militants justifies the burning of villages or assaults on unarmed civilians.

The persecution of the Rohingya isn’t new. Since the 1970s, one million Rohingya have fled Rakhine, almost half of them into Bangladesh. From the point of view of the military and the Buddhists who dominate Myanmar, the Rohingya have never fit into the grand historical narrative that the country has tried to propagate since its independence in 1948. The veiled women and bearded refugees that I watched slaughter cows for Eid al-Adha in their makeshift refugee camps just inside Bangladesh could never be fully part of a land that has tried to use Buddhism as its national glue.

Unlike Mandela in South Africa, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has not tried to recast Burmese history to heal her fractured society. Indeed, she has betrayed the memory of her father, Gen. Aung San, who tried to build a genuinely multiethnic Burma, and has buckled under pressure from Buddhist extremists. Rohingya say that local militias, many supportive of the monk-led extremists called the 969 Movement, have been entering villages alongside the Burmese military to burn them down and murder innocents.

On Wednesday, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi characterized reports from Rakhine as “misinformation” and attributed the violence to “terrorists.” While Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi herself is not directly responsible for the military’s actions — in Myanmar, the military is answerable only to its own high command — at the very least she has a moral duty to call out the human-rights violations that she herself campaigned to stop. Failing to do so is not the behavior of someone hailed by the Nobel committee for her “work for democracy and human rights” and her commitment to “peace and reconciliation.”

“I know about Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize, but she has not maintained the meaning of the prize,” Mr. Abdul Kalam said. In abetting this horrific slaughter, she has forfeited the right to call herself a laureate.

Jacob Judah is a second-year student at the London School of Economics who has been working at The Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh.

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