I have mentioned before how Buddhism, seen in the west as a peaceful, contemplative religion, is not immune from its adherents becoming violent towards minority religious groups. This has happened most noticeably in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar and Peter Maass reports on the shameful role that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Sui Kyi has played in the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI IS ONE of the most celebrated human rights icons of our age: Nobel Peace Laureate, winner of the Sakharov Prize, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an Amnesty International-recognized prisoner of conscience for 15 long years.
These days, however, she is also an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape.
For the past year, Aung San Suu Kyi has been State Counselor, or de facto head of government, in Myanmar, where members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in the northern Rakhine state have been shot, stabbed, starved, robbed, raped and driven from their homes in the hundreds of thousands. In December, while the world focused on the fall of Aleppo, more than a dozen Nobel Laureates published an open letter warning of a tragedy in Rakhine “amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
And the response of Aung San Suu Kyi? This once-proud campaigner against wartime rape and human rights abuses by the Burmese military has opted to borrow from the Donald Trump playbook of denial and deflection. Her office accused Rohingya women of fabricating stories of sexual violence and put the words “fake rape” — in the form of a banner headline, no less — on its official website. A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry — also controlled directly by Aung San Suu Kyi — dismissed “made-up stories, blown out of proportion.” In February, the State Counselor herself reportedly told the Archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, that the international community is exaggerating the Rohingya issue.
This is Trumpism 101: Deny. Discredit. Smear.
Yet hers is not merely a crime of omission, a refusal to denounce or condemn. Hers are much worse crimes of commission. She took a deliberate decision to try and discredit the Rohingya victims of rape. She went out of her way to accuse human rights groups and foreign journalists of exaggerations and fabrications. She demanded that the U.S. government stop using the name “Rohingya” — thereby perpetuating the pernicious myth that the Muslims of Rakhine are “Bengali” interlopers (rather than a Burmese community with a centuries-long presence inside Myanmar.) She also appointed a former army general to investigate the recent attacks on the Rohingya and he produced a report in January that, not surprisingly, whitewashed the well-documented crimes of his former colleagues in the Burmese military.
Silence, therefore, is the least of her sins. Silence also suggests a studied neutrality. Yet there is nothing neutral about Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance. She has picked her side and it is the side of Buddhist nationalism and crude Islamophobia.
In 2013, after an interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, Aung San Suu Kyi complained, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” In 2015, ahead of historic parliamentary elections, the NLD leader purged her party of all Muslim candidates, resulting in the country’s first legislature without any Muslim representation whatsoever. Like a Burmese Steve Bannon, she paranoiacally speaks of “global Muslim power” being “very great” — only 4 percent of the Burmese population, incidentally, is Muslim — while conspiratorially dismissing reports of Buddhist-orchestrated massacres in Rakhine as “Muslims killing Muslims.”
No religion is free from this kind of bigotry and religious chauvinism and their ugly intolerance and penchant for violence usually becomes exposed when they enjoy the patronage of state power. We see something similar happening in India where Hindu extremists are attacking members of minority religions, and of course, the awful treatment on non-Muslim minorities in many Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia.
On the surface, you would think that individuals and groups who have been treated badly would be sensitive to and guard against doing the same to others, But sadly there are many instances, and Aung San Sui Kyi is but one example, where that does not happen.