October 18th, 2012 | WEEKEND

Rule of Law? Meet the Rohingya

Through Timothy Dwight College’s Chubb Fellowship, Nobel Prize laureate and internationally renowned democracy and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a speech at Sprague Hall that drew roughly 700 attendees.
Through Timothy Dwight College’s Chubb Fellowship, Nobel Prize laureate and internationally renowned democracy and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a speech at Sprague Hall that drew roughly 700 attendees. Photo by Joyce Xi.

This is the first piece in Erin McDonough’s new WEEKEND Blog column, “International Bulletin: A quick dispatch for the curious Eli.”

There’s no doubt that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a sterling record. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she recently re-entered the political sphere following nearly two decades of house arrest. Now she leads Burma’s chief opposition party, the National League for Democracy, in addition to serving in the country’s parliament. Considered something of a living legend, she is reverently referred to as “The Lady” by the international community. Jason Burke of The Guardian recently compare her peacekeeping fame to that of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. On Sept. 27, having traveled to campus as the recipient of Yale’s Chubb Fellowship, Suu Kyi addressed the Yale community about the virtue and necessity of proper rule of law.

“For us, human rights and rule of law went together,” Suu Kyi said. “Unless there is rule of law, there can be no guarantee of human rights… Rule of law is what rules our lives from day to day. If it is rule of unjust laws, then we are ruled unjustly from day to day.”

These poignant words aren’t falling on deaf ears. In the past year, Burma’s government has made critical changes for the better — it has eased censorship, halted the construction of a controversial Chinese dam and respected the NLD’s sweep of the nation’s April by-elections. Following Thein Sein’s election to the Burmese presidency in March 2011, more than 600 political prisoners were released in a demonstration of the nation’s burgeoning “love and sympathy.” As a sign of its continuing commitment to political change, the regime released 500 more prisoners this past September.

Still, Suu Kyi’s idyllic rendering of rule of law points to an obvious irony within Burma: The nation’s Buddhist majority — comprising 60 percent of the population —is benefiting from the country’s progression toward democracy while the nation’s minorities suffer from persecution. Burma’s Rohingya Muslim population bears the brunt of ongoing sectarian discrimination.

A bit of context: A recent Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report estimates that 800,000 Rohingya still reside in Burma, with an additional 400,000 refugees in neighboring Bangladesh, and 200,000+ across Pakistan, Thailand and Malaysia. Despite having lived in Burma for generations, the Rohingya are denied Burmese citizenship, under the country’s 1982 Citizenship Act. Additionally, the government limits their access to higher education, equitable marriage policies, land ownership and labor rights.

Last May, three Muslim Rohingya raped a Buddhist woman. The incident served as a catalyst for increased sectarian violence in the southwest state of Rakhine, where the majority of the Rohingya live. Thus far, Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 100,000 more Rohingya have become refugees as a result of this conflict. This group will join the already-overpopulated regional refugee camps currently home to about 300,000 Rohingya.

Speaking of his refugee policy, Burmese President Thein Sein noted, “We will send them away if any third country would accept them.”

Indeed, Rohingya refugees are frequently turned away at the borders of Bangladesh. Boatloads of people are often left floating along the Naf

River Delta, literally stranded between two countries. In the midst of this ethnic conflict, just where does Suu Kyi’s “rule of law” fit in?

Perhaps justifiably, Suu Kyi has received censure of a manner rarely associated with her name for her silence on the plight of the Rohingya. Many frame her ambiguity in the context of Burma’s upcoming elections. Francis Wade of Al-Jazeera explained it as such:

“What lies behind her silence? When pressed on the subject in the wake of the June rioting, she talked of a need to ‘clarify’ citizenship laws and urged the government to grant equal rights to ‘all ethnic minorities.'” Wade wrote. “It was deliberately vague and diversionary — Rohingya are not considered an ethnic minority by the powers that be in Myanmar, meaning she quietly avoided angering her supporters.”

Though we expect explicit condemnation of ethnic violence from one of the world’s leading pro-democracy advocates, is that fair? Is omission a sin?

Surprisingly, Suu Kyi came close to addressing the concerns about ethnic violence in her speech to the Yale community.

“Some have questioned whether it was right to put rule of law before end to ethnic conflict,” she said. “We did that because we believe that — practically speaking — we cannot bring an end to ethnic conflict unless there is rule of law. Unless we can assure our ethnic nationalities that justice will not only be done but seen to be done for them, we would not be able to support any peace process with confidence.”

The reality is that Suu Kyi faces an election in 2015 which will be determined by a Buddhist electorate. Just as “rule of law” paves the way for ethnic justice, so too could Suu Kyi’s election pave the way for the termination of the Rohingya conflict. Though it’s an admittedly optimistic view, Suu Kyi’s silence could be read as indicative of a long-term vision for Burma’s development and symptomatic of playing that ever-sneaky political game — elections.

Burma may be evolving, but it is far from stable. I’m inclined to think that Suu Kyi understands this well. Well enough, at least, to comprehend the strategic value of silence.