By Shirin Ebadi
In advance of a United Nations envoy’s visit to the country, Burmese officials in June instructed U.N. officials to refer to Burma’s Muslim minority as “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine state.” This is the latest chapter in what has become a tragic campaign to reassure Buddhist nationalists that the government will continue to oppress the Rohingya—even to the point of denying them their name and citizenship in Burma.
Sadly, this campaign is being led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
After decades of defiant activism, house arrest and unimaginable personal sacrifice, Ms. Suu Kyi is finally in a position to bring democracy to her country. Ms. Suu Kyi’s party won Burma’s national elections in November 2015, and this spring, in addition to being named foreign minister, she was appointed state counselor, the de facto prime minister. The new title effectively gives her the power to run Burma.
I’m sure it is a responsibility that my fellow Nobel peace laureate—a woman who was under house arrest off and on for more than two decades—takes very seriously. Yet those of us who spoke up for Aung San Suu Kyi those many years when her human rights were being violated—including His Holiness the Dalai Lamaand Archbishop Desmond Tutu—are deeply pained that she won’t extend the same respect for human rights to Burma’s more than one million Rohingya.
Like thousands of human-rights defenders around the world, we have also called upon Burma to respect the rights of other political prisoners and minorities in Burma—including the Karen, the Shan and the Chin. Global human-rights organizations, along with courageous grass roots organizations in Burma, have documented how the Burmese military and state have suppressed these minorities through religious persecution, killings, rape, disappearances, torture and other crimes against humanity.
After at least 100 Rohingya were killed during 2012 riots and clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine state, we spoke out publicly to help Burma’s Muslim minority.
As a Muslim woman, I feel it is my particular responsibility to ring the alarm bells about the Burmese government’s campaign against the Rohingya. Burma has long denied the Rohingya the recognition and basic rights, like access to education and freedom of movement, that citizenship would afford. Since the riots, more than 140,000 Rohingya have been forced into refugee camps, and many of them now live in conditions much resembling concentration camps. Tens of thousands have risked losing their lives to make the dangerous journey by sea in overcrowded boats to leave Rakhine state.
The Buddhist majority in Burma—even many seasoned democracy activists—seem to see no contradiction in their call for democracy and the cruel and inhumane treatment of the Rohingya. This includes Aung San Suu Kyi.
This is grimly ironic, given that her supporters—including me—have for many years defiantly rejected the word Myanmar, the name assigned to the country by the autocratic military that ran the country since 1962. We respected the fact that Ms. Suu Kyi and her followers called themselves Burmese, and the country Burma.
So how can Ms. Suu Kyi now turn her back on the Rohingya?
I have paid a high price in my life advocating for freedom, including defending the rights of the Bah’ai, a religious minority, in Iran. Since 2009, I have been forced to live outside of Iran—and have lost not only my home but also my marriage and many friends. But I strongly believe there is no other way to live. Up until recently, I thought that Ms. Suu Kyi and I shared this conviction.
In May, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party announced that she will head up a committee dedicated to promoting peace and development in Rakhine state. The announcement said the committee—which reportedly will include 27 members of the new cabinet—will “coordinate” the activities of U.N. agencies and international nongovernmental organizations in that state.
This looks suspiciously more like an effort to further tighten her government’s authoritarian control over the region than a response to a human-rights crisis. Let’s hope not. I’ll be the first to applaud if my sister Nobel peace laureate bravely ignores the internal pressure to dehumanize the Rohingya and instead stands up for their rights.
Ms. Ebadi, the author of “Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran” (Random House, 2016) and a co-founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
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