A Rohingya refugee crosses a makeshift bridge over stagnant water at the Balukhali refugee camp. Photo: AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Our obsession with Aung San Suu Kyi blinds us to the deeper causes of the Rohingya tragedy

If we are to address the genocidal violence in Rakhine seriously, we have to look beyond the culpability of one person
March 16, 2018

In March, the US Holocaust Museum revoked a human rights award it had given to Burma’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing her of doing too little to stop the persecution of the Rohingya population in Rakhine. This came hard on the heels of other such revocations, including an honorary fellowship by the Oxford college where she studied, and calls for her to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize.

But rather than allowing us to rethink our prior enthusiasm for her heroism, has our desire to hold her responsible for the catastrophe become a gesture by which we wash our hands of all complicity in it? Isn’t our focus on her betrayal of our hopes narcissistic, especially given the fact that we tend not to know the name of the general directly responsible for conducting operations against the Rohingya?

Even those of us who refuse to excuse her silence about—or toleration of—the violence perpetrated by Burmese civilians and soldiers in Rakhine are compelled to consider whether our focus on Suu Kyi blinds us to the most basic understanding of the situation. Why, for example, do their enemies refer to the Rohingya primarily as Bengalis rather than, as the international media repeatedly does, as Muslims?

The name Bengali signals more than an attempt to classify the Rohingya as foreigners or “illegal” immigrants. Displacing terms like “Muslim” and even “Bangladeshi” for a religiously neutral one, emerges from a longer history of Burmese racism and xenophobia going back to colonial times.

This former Buddhist kingdom had been conquered and incorporated into British India in the middle of the 19th century, and its long-established Hindu and Muslim populations joined by Indian newcomers.

Burma’s large population of Hindu and Muslim traders, soldiers, administrators and labourers, many from the neighbouring Indian state of Bengal, became the objects of nationalist hatred, and were attacked in riots through the 1930s until they were finally expelled to India and what was then East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—in 1962. Even today in Burma, Indians, Bangladeshis and other South Asians are referred to by the popular slur “kala,” an Indian-derived word that means “black” but also “foreigner,” without regard to religion or nationality

Targeting the Rohingya, in other words, is part of a complex history, in which a single regional and religious identity has taken centre stage in recent years. But it is precisely the complexity of this history that makes it erratic, because its violence is capable of shifting from one group to another. At the moment, for instance, non-Rohingya Muslims in Burma are not subject to the same kind of persecution as their co-religionists in Rakhine. For the latter combine two perceived threats—of “foreign” immigrants, who may also include Hindus, and “secessionist” minorities, including Christians and other groups.

Just as solely focusing on Suu Kyi blinds us to the history of Burmese nationalism, so too, does focusing on the religious identity of the Rohingya. Such an emphasis on their religion, paradoxically, pleases their Muslim supporters internationally because it resolves the Burmese conflict into a neat global stereotype—as nothing more than an example of Islamophobia.

Nothing of what I have just written can be inferred from the innumerable anguished pages that have been published about Suu Kyi’s “betrayal” of our image of her. This is because our fixation with her celebrity is in fact an obsession with ourselves. Celebrities are created only to be destroyed in the fulfilment of their fame, and serve therefore as experiments in the making and unmaking of our own identifications. In this sense, Suu Kyi is simply one of the many celebrity leaders who dominate our world today.

If, like Justin Trudeau, her charisma has in part been inherited from a powerful father, then like Barack Obama she appears to have been trapped by the very system she promised to change. Like the stars they had become, both Obama and Suu Kyi received Nobel Prizes before they accomplished anything—promissory notes they treated as blank cheques.

One of my professors at the University of Chicago once told me that the cultural form democracy had taken root in the US resulted in the inability to countenance any hierarchy based on birth, wealth, merit or intellect, since all implied exclusions of various kinds. Only celebrity was an acceptable basis for hierarchy, because like the lottery it was arbitrary and depended on our whims. Hollywood, therefore, was the model for all US professions and institutions, from the university to the presidency. Perhaps we have all become Americans in this sense.

If we are to address the genocidal violence in Rakhine seriously, it is incumbent on us to deflate the simplistic and historically inaccurate obsession with given identities—whether Muslim, Bengali or Rohingya. And also to look beyond the culpability of one individual in whom we placed all too much faith.