A beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner is presiding over an ethnic cleansing in which villages are burned, women raped and children butchered.
For the last three weeks, Buddhist-majority Myanmar has systematically slaughtered civilians belonging to the Rohingya Muslim minority, forcing 270,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh — with Myanmar soldiers shooting at them even as they cross the border.
“The Buddhists are killing us with bullets,” Noor Symon, a woman carrying her son, told a Times reporter. “They burned houses and tried to shoot us. They killed my husband by bullet.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the widow who defied Myanmar’s dictators, endured a total of 15 years of house arrest and led a campaign for democracy, was a hero of modern times. Yet today Suu Kyi, as the effective leader of Myanmar, is chief apologist for this ethnic cleansing, as the country oppresses the darker-skinned Rohingya and denounces them as terrorists and illegal immigrants.
And “ethnic cleansing” may be an understatement. Even before the latest wave of terror, a Yale study had suggested that the brutality toward the Rohingya might qualify as genocide.
“They’re killing children,” Matthew Smith, the chief executive of a human rights group called Fortify Rights, told me after interviewing refugees on the Bangladesh border. “In the least, we’re talking about crimes against humanity.”
“My two nephews, their heads were cut off,” one Rohingya survivor told Smith. “One was 6 years old and the other was 9.”
Other accounts describe soldiers throwing infants into a river to drown, and decapitating a grandmother.
It’s not that Suu Kyi is organizing the killings, or that they are entirely one-sided. The latest slaughter began after Rohingya militants attacked police stations and a military base Aug. 25; the Myanmar security forces responded with scorched-earth fury against Rohingya civilians.
Hundreds are believed to have been killed, but Suu Kyi has not criticized the slaughter. Rather, she blamed international aid groups and complained about “a huge iceberg of misinformation” aiming to help “the terrorists” — presumably meaning the Rohingya.
Based on a conversation with Suu Kyi once about the Rohingya, I think she genuinely believes that they are outsiders and troublemakers. But in addition, the moral giant has become a pragmatic politician — and she knows that any sympathy for the Rohingya would be disastrous politically for her party in a country deeply hostile to its Muslim minority.
Myanmar tries to keep foreigners out of the Rohingya areas, but I’ve managed to get there twice in the last few years, and even then Rohingya were confined to concentration camps or to remote villages. Many were systematically denied medical care, and children were barred from public schools.
In Washington, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning the violence and calling on Suu Kyi to work to halt it. I hope President Donald Trump speaks up as well.
We know that the Myanmar government responds to pressure, because that’s what won Suu Kyi her freedom. Yet there has been far too little outcry for the Rohingya; bravo to Pope Francis for being an exception among world leaders and speaking up for them. A basic lesson of history: Ignoring a possible genocide only encourages the persecutors.
There are petitions online calling for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel. In fact, there is no mechanism to take away the prize, but I do wish that the prize money could be recovered and go to feed the widows and orphans being created on her watch.
Writes for The New York Times.