Aung San Suu Kyi’s video interview with BBC on 24th October 2013, has shocked many international observers and has devastated the Burmese Muslim community. Her comments, which echo the narrative of Buddhist extremists who have been responsible for the recent violence, have not only terrified the whole community; they also raise the worrying question that if a Noble Laureate from Burma has such radical view on Burmese Muslims
, what can be expected from the generals who are not even novices in learning the principles of multiculturalism.
In the interview, Aung San Suu Kyi attempted to explain the wave of anti-Muslim violence by blaming Burma’s Muslim minority as a genuine threat that is causing “fear” among the Buddhist majority. To support her idea, she used the term “global Muslim power” to justify anti-Muslim violence and obscure the increasing threat of notorious 969 Buddhist extremism in Burma. This labelling of the deeply rooted Islamophobia in Burma as a fear of “global Muslim power” not only reproduces the narrative of Buddhist extremists, it also distorts the country’s social reality and political history.
Muslims make up only 4% of Burma’s population of approximately 60 million, practice a very moderate form of Islam
, and are preoccupied with their livelihoods, not on spreading their religion. In fact, religion has never been a dividing issue for Burmese Muslims, who are part of Burma’s nationalist history and feel ourselves to be an integral part of Burma.
The fear of Islam by the Buddhist community in Burma that Suu Kyi described uncritically in her interview is an artificial fear that is an outcome of a man-made ethno-nationalist mind-set, implemented systematically by General Ne Win and recently inflamed by 969 Buddhist extremists. The Nobel Laureate could have used the opportunity of the interview to publically condemn the violence and critique this ethno-nationalist mind-set, rather than reinforcing it and even giving it legitimacy. As the Chairperson of the Burma’s Parliamentary Committee for the Rule of Law, Peace and Tranquillity, Suu Kyi should have discussed the dangers of the on-going lack of rule of law and the need to urgently reform the country’s biased judicial system, which does not treat minorities, including Muslim citizens, as equal before the law.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments on displacement were also inaccurate and disappointing. When questioned about the 140,000 displaced people in Rakhine State and the many Rohingya Muslims who continue to risk their lives fleeing the country by boat, her response was that many Buddhists have also left the country. While there are many Rakhine Buddhists who have been affected and displaced by last years deadly outbreak of violence, the scale of displacement is not comparable to that suffered by the Rohingya community. Buddhist Burmese who have left the country over the course of the past several decades have not done so as a result of religious persecution and certainly not because of some imagined ‘Muslim threat’.
The Lady’s denial of ethnic cleansing, perhaps, optimistically, seemed like an attempt to save the country’s image. While debates remain on whether or not we are already witnessing an all-out ethnic cleansing campaign, violence targeting Muslims is an indisputable reality and simply refusing to engage in a critique of this violence will not make it go away. Failure to take such concerns seriously is done so at the expense of innocent lives.
Aung San Suu Kyi, at least should not forget Saya Maung Thaw Ka, an author, a close associate to her and a CEC member of NLD who persuaded her to appear to the public in 8888 uprising, was a Burmese Muslim. He was arrested in 1989 and sentenced for 20 years jail with hard labour. He was severely tortured in the jail and died in 1991. According to a witness who saw the dead body, “from head to toe, the body was filled with wounds, which proved the authorities has tortured him in the jail severely”. There are many Muslims in Burma including Rohingyas whom she refused to recognize, have sacrificed their lives in the same way as Saya Maung Thaw Ka for her party.
It is very sad that today solidarity with Muslims in Burma is considered political suicide, and that the community is used merely as a political scapegoat for those seeking votes. Burmese Muslims must be recognised by the country’s leaders and citizens as an integral part of Burma’s history, present and future. This is the most critical step towards preventing more violence and slowly building our dream of a peaceful and plural society in Burma.
Kyaw Win is Burmese Muslim human rights activist, currently living in the UK.