Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for a meeting with Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano in Rome. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA
When Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to collect her Nobel peace prize in 2012, the committee’s chairman described how her “firmness of principle” in the struggle for human rights and democracy had made her “a moral leader for the whole world”. Since taking power in Myanmar, the former political prisoner’s moral credibility has been vastly diminished if not demolished by her failure to even acknowledge the brutal persecution of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. A dozen fellow Nobel peace laureates have lamented her inaction faced with “a human tragedy amounting to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.
On Tuesday, the increasing gulf between her and her long-time international supporters was exposed again when she appeared alongside the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The EU rightly backs the United Nations human rights council’s decision to dispatch a fact-finding mission over allegations of murder, rape and torture by military and security forces. She insisted the decision was “not in keeping with what is really happening on the ground” and would make matters worse.
The stateless Rohingya population, who are Muslim, have been abused and suppressed for decades. In 2012, massacres killed more than 200 people and displaced around 140,000 to what are effectively detention camps. In 2015, the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London concluded that Myanmar was coordinating with ethnic Rakhine ultra-nationalists, racist Buddhist monks and its own security forces in a campaign of genocide. It fears that process may be escalating. In October, military “clearance operations” in northern Rakhine state following attacks on border police posts by Rohingya militants forced tens of thousands to flee; a UN report details allegations of atrocities including gang rape and child murder.
Before Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, defenders said she was biding her time and would tackle the troubles of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities – of which the Rohingya are by far the most serious – in due course. Now they say her hands are tied. The military still calls the shots, particularly in border areas. This is in part down to the constitution, which awards the army the most important cabinet posts, but also because the generals control large tracts of industry. She also faces a tide of anti-Muslim nationalism. But her own office plastered the words “fake rape” across its website to discredit reports of sexual abuse by troops. The rights of some humans seem more important than others.
The UN mission should, of course, be able to investigate unimpeded. Myanmar’s record of obstructing journalists, NGOs, academics and other researchers is unacceptable. But the evidence of crimes against humanity is already compelling. So in the meantime the limited avenues for exerting pressure on Myanmar must be used. Working with civil society groups to challenge racial and religious hatred is extremely difficult – given such widespread hostility – but activists say it is vital. Foreign governments can play their part by making trade and other deals with Myanmar conditional on civil and human rights being tangibly upheld. Firms doing business in Myanmar should be likewise pressed to face their moral responsibilities. The Rohingya cannot wait for Aung San Suu Kyi or yet more reports.
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