Will Bishop Tutu’s voice of reason prevail over Aung San Su Kyi?
The marginilisation and oppression of the people of Rohingya finally received the media coverage it deserves. Most international news networks headlined the atrocities currently taking place in Rakhine state, Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Pictures of exhausted women and children who travelled for days without food and water in search of safety have been dominating global television news. They demonstrate the dire humanitarian situation in Myanmar. Rohingya Muslim minority are regarded as the most oppressed and persecuted minority on earth. Myanmar has refused to recognise them and have deprived them of citizenship. Children are prevented from attending school and accessing government health facilities is almost impossible. The plight of the Rohingya has once again put a spotlight on the brutal military regime of Myanmar. Importantly it has brought into question the leadership of Aung San Su Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a de facto leader of Myanmar. There has been unprecedented political pressure on her to intervene in the current debacle. Some have gone to an extent of calling on the Noble Peace Prize committee to strip her of the honors for failing to do more to stop the ongoing atrocities.
In September 2016, Aung San Su Kyi, Kofi Annan Foundation and others appointed the Advisory Commission to look at the sociopolitical challenges in Rakhine state where the majority of Rohingya are concentrated. The commission was a “neutral and impartial body which aims to propose concrete measures for improving the welfare of all people in Rakhine state. It was composed of six local and three international experts, and was chaired by Kofi Annan”. According to Annan. “Unless concerted action — led by the government and aided by all sectors of the government and society — is taken soon, we risk the return of another cycle of violence and radicalisation, which will further deepen the chronic poverty that afflicts Rakhine State”. There are 43% Muslims in Rakhine state, a sizeable number of those are Rohingya Muslims. The commission was doomed not to succeed from the beginning. It chose to dillydally around the main issue i.e. the continual discrimination of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state, it didn’t even call the Rohingya by name. Instead it concentrated its work on the overall provincial state challenges. The brief of the commission failed to deal with the core problem which culminated into the current mess. The ambiguity of the commission served to maintain favor within Aung San Su Kyi’s constituency whose hatred for Rohingya has been demonstrated over the years. It was also used as a smokescreen amidst a growing international criticism of her inaction.
Amongst the people who have criticized her “inaction” has been the buoyant South African civil rights activist Bishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, remains an epitome of principled civil and political leadership in the world. He was the first black Bishop of Cape Town to lead South African Anglican Church during the height of apartheid. He also led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a pragmatic reconciliation process which attempted to foster racial reconciliation in post Apartheid South Africa. His stance on various issues around matters of global justice has been hailed world over. His pronouncements against the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli government in occupied territories remain the most notable yet from any global leader. In his country of birth, South Africa, Tutu has been very vocal against the abuse of power by the governing African National Congress (ANC) particularly its president Jacob Zuma.
In an open letter to Aung San Su Kyi Tutu lashes out at her inability to intervene and warns her of the trappings of power. “My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country” he writes. There is a great deal to be learned from Tutu’s latest position on Myanmar. Indeed repeatedly, leaders forget people’s mandate and the principles they stood for before assuming political offices. The inaction by the government of Myanmar and its de facto leader Aung San Su Kyi demonstrates the dangerous trapping of political power. Amnesty International reports that it has evidence that Myanmar’s military has gone to an extent of planting landmines to prevent the Rohingya refugees from moving freely into Bangladesh and returning to Myanmar. Notwithstanding those impediments thousands continue to leave their burning villages to the unknown in Bangladesh. Aung San Su Kyi is yet to address the international community on the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya and the impunity which persist in Rakhine state against Rohingya. Unless voices of reason like those of Desmond Tutu become commonplace in global political discourses, scenes like those seen in Myanmar will not stop.