They call her “the Iron Orchid.”
It’s a sobriquet inspired by the dichotomy of her ironclad convictions and quiet grace. In many ways, Aung San Suu Kyi—recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991—is the consummate freedom fighter. As the uncontested and near-universally beloved leader of the Burmese democratic opposition, she endured 15 years of house arrest for her criticism of Myanmar’s military junta. This, despite massive popularity abroad and the prospectively attractive comforts of political asylum in the West.
But these days, the Iron Orchid seems to have wilted. Heretofore unafraid of speaking out against the perennial human-rights violations perpetrated against her people by the junta, Ms. Suu Kyi has remained lamentably silent on the plight of Myanmar’s viciously oppressed Muslim minority.
The Rohingya, who are concentrated in the western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, bordering Bangladesh, differ from the ethnic Burmese in a number of ways. The Burmese are, of course, a largely Buddhist people; their language of Sino-Tibetan origin, a family which includes Mandarin. The Rohingya are, as mentioned, primarily Muslim, and they speak a dialect of Bengali-Assamese — part of a family that includes Hindi and Urdu.
The stark cultural, religious, and genetic differences between these two groups have precipitated fraught inter-ethnic relations; an ongoing conflict in which Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya have indisputably come off the worse. Tensions came to a head in 2012 when Arakan was briefly engulfed in a bout of sectarian violence. According to the office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, these clashes, often instigated by ultranationalist Buddhist monks, left more than 200 dead and 140,000 (mostly Rohingya) homeless.
Those Rohingya driven from their homes have been deposited in prison-like internal-displacement camps, where food is scarce, fresh water is even scarcer, disease runs rampant, and medical care is virtually inaccessible. Foreign aid workers, who, as it is, already walk a tenuous line in Myanmar, are frequently met with open hostility from ethnic Burmese when they intervene on behalf of the reviled Rohingya — because, despite having resided in western Burma since as far back as the 14th century, the Rohingya are generally perceived as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and eastern India; cultural invaders and public-service leeches.
Yet, for a brief moment, (relatively) better living appeared to be obtainable for some. Roughly 850,000 Rohingya hold what are known as temporary-registration cards, or “white cards.” A resolution passed by the Myanmarese parliament on February 2 would have allowed white-card holders to vote in the proposed constitutional referendum scheduled for later this year. This incensed ethnic Burmese MPs in Arakan who, like many of their compatriots, do not recognize the Rohingya as a legitimate nationality of the Myanmarese state, and are staunchly opposed to the idea of non-citizens participating in possible elections. (The only way for the Rohingya to become naturalized Myanmarese citizens is by providing extensive documentation of transgenerational residency — paperwork that simply does not exist for most — and to renounce the very term, “Rohingya,” submitting to alternate ethnic classification by the government in Naypyidaw.)
The decision incited demonstrations across Arakan state. “The government must officially announce that white card holders will not be allowed to vote in the referendum,” one protester demanded, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, “this is an utmost right, reserved only for citizens.” According to reporter Pho Thiha, the president’s office has “since announced that the cards will expire at the end of March and must be handed over to authorities, effectively undermining any granting of voting rights.”
“If the government wants to take my white card, what can I do?” said a 23-year-old mother living in the Thae Chaung resettlement camp in Arakan. “I’ll just have to give it to them,” she told Reuters.
Reuters also spoke with Richard Horsey, a political analyst and expert on Myanmar based in Yangon. “It is unlikely that white card holders in displacement camps will give these up voluntarily,” he warned. “Any attempts to enforce the order to surrender the cards could spark violence.”
And yet, Ms. Suu Kyi is reticent. Perhaps because some of her fiercest supporters, Buddhist clerics known as “the Saffron Monks,” are among the most unapologetic champions of anti-Rohingya apartheid, and among its most savage enforcers. A Human Rights Watch report from 2013 found the local Buddhist monkhood to be a primary inciting force of an attack on Yan Thei village and eight other townships in Arakan. Thousands of ethnic Burmese men descended on the primarily Muslim settlement, armed with machetes, homemade firearms, and Molotov cocktails, massacring 70 Rohingya and driving the rest from their homes. Such a politically willful and readily murderous mob would likely turn on any politician, regardless of status, who betrays even the slightest of sympathies for the Rohingya.
But the reality of the situation can likely be distilled to simple political cynicism.
“It seems as though she aspires to become president of Myanmar,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in his column for The New York Times last June. “Speaking up for a reviled minority could be fatal to her prospects. The moral giant has become a calculating politician.” And it’s possible this does not all together spell doom for the Rohingya. More than anything else, the Iron Orchid is known for her patience — a stubborn 15 years under house arrest is proves as much. Is she biding her time, awaiting her chance at real executive leadership before coming to the rescue of Myanmar’s most vulnerable community?
If so, another nickname might be in order. “The Iron Creeping Charlie,” perhaps. In any event, the Rohingya cannot wait for the possibility of imminent constitutional reform — which is by no means guaranteed, even as Ms. Suu Kyi is permitted to openly campaign for it. And the sad fact is, many aren’t. As Kristof reports, “in the absence of schools, Wahhabi madrassas are popping up” in Rohingya camps, aimed at instilling fundamentalist values, and which may ultimately devolve into breeding grounds for an Islamist insurgency.
In the end, the fate of the Rohingya is inextricably tied up with the fate of greater Myanmar. And as an activist who is definitively concerned with the future of Myanmar, Ms. Suu Kyi appears to be willing to put that future at risk by choosing silence over speaking out.