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Does Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi Want To Push Her Country’s Muslims Into the Sea?

The plight of an oppressed people in Myanmar

Jon Emont
May 17, 2016
Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
A Rohingya woman grieves after a fire gutted her family's shelter in Bawdupa camp near Sittwe, Myanmar's Rakhine state capital on May 3, 2016. A major fire on May 3 damaged or destroyed the homes of nearly 450 Rohingya Muslim families living in a camp for people displaced by 2012 communal fighting in western Myanmar. Some 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya, have been trapped in the grim displacement camps since they were driven from their homes by waves of violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims four years ago.Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
A Rohingya woman grieves after a fire gutted her family's shelter in Bawdupa camp near Sittwe, Myanmar's Rakhine state capital on May 3, 2016. A major fire on May 3 damaged or destroyed the homes of nearly 450 Rohingya Muslim families living in a camp for people displaced by 2012 communal fighting in western Myanmar. Some 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya, have been trapped in the grim displacement camps since they were driven from their homes by waves of violence between Buddhists and minority Muslims four years ago.Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

It was late November—two weeks after the elections—and Nura Din needed to escape the They Key Pyin Internally Displaced Persons Camp. The monsoon season was over—there had been no heavy rain for weeks—and the Bay of Bengal was becoming calm again. The smuggling networks were already rumored to be kicking back into gear: Soon small fishing boats would take members of the escaping Rohingya—a Muslim community in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma—out along the Kalaman River, where they’d connect with bigger boats in the bay. Anywhere was better than here. “Wherever the boat lands,” he said, was good enough.

His parents agreed that he had to get out. Nura Din is only 13 years old, but he has four younger siblings and the international aid agencies, which are under strain dealing with refugee crises around the globe, are cutting back their food allotments to Rohingya refugees. He had heard about Myanmar’s recent national election, from which the Rohingya had been excluded, but he didn’t know anything about it. “I don’t want to live here anymore,” he said. Recently the Burmese government authorities have entered camps and punished Rohingya who speak with journalists. He was hungry in class, he said. He was hungry now, chatting with a journalist.

In May 2015, the Rohingya refugee crisis grabbed international headlines when tens of thousands of Rohingya fled discrimination in Myanmar on the dangerous smuggler-supervised boat journey to Thailand and Malaysia. Hundreds of Rohingya drowned in the “fleeing season” when their frail vessels collapsed; mass graves of hundreds of trafficked people, many believed to be Rohingya, were found in the forests of Thailand. The human traffickers who work with desperate Rohingya will crowd them into prison camps in the Thai jungle and elsewhere, and, in order to solicit more money, will call their parents and torture them so that their parents can hear their screams of pain over the phone.

Nura Din, like the other Rohingya I spoke with who plan on fleeing, is aware of all of this but is ready to roll the dice. He remembers how he used to go off to school in the morning and that he had the chance to study well, supplementing his public education with private classes. Here he is too hungry and distracted to study, and the school is crowded and poorly equipped. He wants to grow up to become an activist for the community but he worries he’ll become nothing if he stays here. That—and that there isn’t enough food for his family—is why he has to get in a boat.

He is confident he has a strategy if any smugglers try to herd him into a prison camp. Every time the smugglers try to imprison Rohingya he says, “there are some people who are clever and can escape the traffickers.” So his strategy is simple. “I would follow the clever ones,” he says.


On Nov. 8, 2015, Myanmar’s military-controlled government conducted a relatively free and fair election for the first time since the military seized power in 1962. Myanmar’s voters rejected the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in favor of the National League of Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s democratic opposition, led by Nobel Prize Laureate and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. In her first speech after the vote she enjoined her red-clad supporters, holding aloft banners of a peacock chasing a star, the emblem of the NLD, to remain humble after her party’s astounding triumph. “This victory should be for the whole country not a particular party or individual,” she announced.

A fundamental question for the Rohingya is whether her vision of “the whole country” includes the Rohingya, who were systematically excluded from voting this election. (They had been able to vote in Myanmar’s previous sham elections.) In the run-up to the vote, Suu Kyi’s NLD purged its candidate roster of all Muslim candidates, including non-Rohingya Muslim Burmese who were legally allowed to participate, in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to neutralize hardline Buddhist and nationalist critics of her party.

Suu Kyi did nothing to dispel the idea that she cared about winning elections more than she did about defending a pluralistic vision of Myanmar. At a press conference held a few days before the vote, she encouraged journalists not to “exaggerate” the plight of the Rohingya and declined to outline concrete steps she would take to improve their situation if her party came to power. Nonetheless some Rohingya leaders and NGO activists are hopeful that a government led by Suu Kyi, who maintains credibility as a democracy activist and who has never used the vile rhetoric toward Muslims often used by other Burmese politicians, will take steps to improve the Rohingya’s status now that her party has begun formally governing in April.

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya former parliamentarian who was barred from contesting this election due to his ethnicity, criticized Suu Kyi and other Burmese politicians for refusing to defend the Rohingya. “Leaders have not taken the obligation to protect the minority from the influence of the majority,” he said. Nonetheless, he was hopeful that a new, nonmilitary government would offer opportunities to improve the Rohingya’s situation.

U Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer and prominent dissident who has spent years in and out of prison for defending Rohingya rights and currently lives in a humble house in Thet Key Pyin camp, said the situation facing the Rohingya “is a kind of ethnic cleansing,” language that is also used by prominent international NGOs like Human Rights Watch. Although he was not optimistic that an NLD government would improve the Rohingya situation, he thought it represented their best hope. “We have to work for this with the NLD. But it is difficult. We can’t travel to Yangon or to anywhere.”

In March of 2015, eight months before the election, the National Holocaust Museum dispatched a research team to Myanmar. The reason for the trip was simple. “We have an early warning project where we list the warning signs that genocide and other atrocities will occur,” said Andrea Gittleman, program manager for the Simon-Skojt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the National Holocaust Museum. “Myanmar and the Rohingya were at the top of the list.” After meeting with Myanmar’s political leaders, visiting the IDP camps, and speaking with a range of actors, it became clear to Gittleman and the team that the warning signs of genocide were present.


There are about 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar, which makes them roughly 2 percent of the country’s population. Myanmar is ethnically heterogeneous but overwhelmingly Buddhist, and the Muslim Rohingya, descendants of traders who have lived in Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, for centuries, are labeled as Bengalis by the state, regardless of how many generations their families have resided in Myanmar. State discrimination against the Rohingya was enshrined in the Burmese citizenship law of 1982, which did not recognize Rohingya as an indigenous race to Myanmar, rendering the majority of Rohingya stateless.

After 2011 when the Burmese military government began implementing a partial transition to civilian rule, state persecution of the Rohingya took on a new ferocity. Rakhine is the second-poorest state in Myanmar, and communal tensions between the Rohingya and the Rakhine people, a local Buddhist ethnicity who give the state its name, are exacerbated by intense competition for jobs and resources. In 2012, the country’s military seized on clashes between the two groups to crack down against the Rohingya. The national government sought to gain popularity among local Rakhine Buddhists, as well as nationally, by presenting itself as a defender against what it portrayed as a Bengali Muslim mass infiltration. In public speeches Myanmar’s President Thein Sein denied that the Rohingya had citizenship rights in Myanmar and asked the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights to take full responsibility for them. He said, “We will take care of our own ethnic nationalities, but Rohingya who came to Burma illegally are not of our nationalities and we cannot accept them here.”

In an attempt to “secure” Buddhist Rakhine, the military forced 138,000 Rohingya from their homes in 2012 and put them in camps near the sea of Bengal. The camps are dirt-poor and desolate, with dusty unpaved roads leading to small wooden shacks huddled against one other, offering dank humid air and shade from the burning sun. Muhammad Hassan, an imam at They Key Pyin camp, wore a long black beard and grimaced with pain as he stood up to greet me. He experiences pain in his testicles from a disease that my translator did not know how to translate, but which Hassan says requires surgery that cannot be accessed in the camps. One of his eyes stares permanently to the left. “It’s difficult to be an imam in this situation,” he said. “The community is not able to support the imam and the imam is not able to manage things for the community.” Hassan says he has his hands full managing fights within the camp, which are largely caused because of disputes over food and because debts are never repaid.

Young people often come to Hassan for counseling before setting off on dangerous sea journeys to escape the camps. He doesn’t deter them. I ask him if there’s any reason to be hopeful. “No, nothing. No future,” he said, shaking his head. He rejected the idea that Suu Kyi cared about the Rohingya. “She never talks about the Rohingya,” Hassan said.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that around 50,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since January 2014. Hundreds more are estimated to have died from preventable disease and illness, and dozens of Rohingya have been killed by the police and local vigilantes. Small numbers of internally displaced Rohingya—25,000 in 2015—are now being resettled by the national government in areas of Rakhine state that, due to the poor quality of its farmland, is not considered likely to create tension.

On the eve of the 2015 elections, the Burmese national government reversed its longstanding policy of allowing Rohingya holders of white cards, a form of state-identification short of citizenship, to vote. “Now they are denying everything,” about Rohingya’s connection to Myanmar, U Kyaw Hla Aung, the Rohingya lawyer, said of the Burmese government.

Two days before the election, I hiked up to the fourth floor of a decrepit building in central Yangon to meet with Abu Tahay, a leading Rohingya politician who was elected to parliament on the Union Nationals Development Party, a Rohingya political party, in a 2010 national election. This election he had registered to run again, but his application was denied because he is Rohingya. He recounted a Kafkaesque process where the local government office in charge of evaluating candidates refused to accept that his parents were citizens of Myanmar at the time of his birth, even though his documents stated clearly that they were. “There is no because,” Tahay said. “I am not a criminal, I am not a madman, and I am a full citizen of the country. And I also [already] ran for election under the same law, under the ’82 citizenship law.”

According to Maung Zarni, a prominent Burmese dissident academic based in Britain, a primary reason the military regime decided to scapegoat the Rohingya during the transition from military rule is that the military felt it would benefit politically by invoking a Muslim threat. The military, Maung Zarni said, “cannot win the public on the grounds of human rights and democracy as well as the NLD and Suu Kyi. That discourse is completely closed off for them, so they have introduced a much more powerful emotive ideology: racial fear of a religious other.”

Government efforts have been amplified by civil society groups like the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, known as the Ma Ba Tha, a nationalist, monk-led organization that argues that Burma’s Buddhist tradition is under threat from the country’s Muslim minority. Ashin Wirathu, the firebrand monk who leads the organization, denigrates Muslims in speeches as “snakes” and “dogs,” and has suggested that when Buddhists shop in Rohingya stores, “That money will be used to get a Buddhist-Burmese woman and she will very soon be coerced or even forced to convert to Islam.” He has actively criticized Suu Kyi’s NLD for being sympathetic to the Rohingya; his organization functions in loose alliance with the USDP, the party of the military. In August 2015 Myanmar’s President Thein Sein signed into law four laws concerning race and religion drafted by lawyers affiliated with the Ma Ba Tha, the most notorious of which limits Muslims—and Muslims alone—to two babies per family.


It was once accepted that Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and darling of the human rights community, was simply unwilling to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya because doing so would make it easier for her political opponents to attack her. But given the scale of her party’s victory, and her continued unwillingness to defend Rohingya, observers and critics are looking at previous statements she has made on violence in Rakhine state, and wondering whether she herself shares in conventional Buddhist-Bamar prejudices against Rohingya Muslims.

In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi categorically denied that ethnic cleansing was taking place in Rohingya and attempted to explain the fear that many Burmese Buddhists brought against Muslims. “There is a perception that Muslim power, that global Muslim power, is very great. And certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world and in our country too.” She did not reject this as a flawed perspective or specifically condemn hate speech that Wirathu, the Ma Ba Tha leader directed toward Muslims, when the interviewer gave her the opportunity. Matthew Smith, the Executive Director of Fortify Rights, an organization that works to secure political and civil rights for the Rohingya said, “Her silence could either be explained by political rationale or discrimination. Neither bodes well in my view.” Like others, Smith nonetheless expressed hopefulness that Myanmar’s new government “to at least work to end ongoing abuses.”

A major source of opposition to any attempt by the new national government to improve the humanitarian situation of the Rohingya will likely come locally, from an empowered Rakhine political opposition. With the Rohingya disenfranchised this election, Rakhine Buddhists had the election in the state to themselves, where they largely passed over the two major national parties to give a plurality to their local ethnic Arakan National Party (ANP), which rejects the idea that Rohingya are native to Rakhine province, or have any right to live there. (Arakan and Rakhine are different spellings of the same region and ethnicity.) Though the Rakhine people have full citizenship rights in Myanmar, they live in extraordinary poverty, often working state-owned farmland as sharecroppers for miserable wages. They see themselves as being oppressed by Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority. Like the Rohingya they migrate from Myanmar at very high rates, though unlike the Rohingya they can travel unrestricted throughout Myanmar and are thus able to migrate overland and avoid dangerous sea journeys.

ANP politicians and voters I spoke with viewed the Rohingya as collaborators in the centuries-long attempt to erase their people’s proud history. Chai Mo, an English teacher and member of the ANP who lives in Mrauk-U, the last capital of the Arakan people, which is now a poor village filled with hundreds-year-old temples, said, “In Rakhine we have had four dynasties, and Mrauk-U was the last dynasty. In that time it was flourishing, but now we have left only this,” he said, gesturing at the poverty surrounding him. “Now our fifth dynasty is under the heel of the Burmese.”

In Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, U U Shwe Maung, a central committee member of the Arakan National Party, who shares a name with, but is not related to, a prominent Rohingya former-parliamentarian, said of the Rohingya, “In the end their goal is to Muslimize this land.”

Activists believe that Suu Kyi’s best opportunity for improving the status of Rohingya will come in the next few months, when her party’s mandate is strongest and NLD lawmakers are still years away from having to worry about re-election. Yet as Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch observes, “every indication has been that she is not that interested in this stuff and she has other fish to fry and she is going to fry those other fish first.” Andrea Gittleman, of the Simon-Skojt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the National Holocaust Museum, was also not optimistic that Suu Kyi’s NLD was going to restore Rohingya civil and political rights. Indeed, in May Suu Kyi formally requested the U.S. government cease referring to Rohingya as Rohingya, but refer to them as Bengali—foreigners—instead. Whether the Rohingya begin fleeing and dying at sea again will be an early sign of what kind of democracy Myanman’s Nobel Laureate has in mind for her country.


Jon Emont last wrote for the magazine about anti-Semitism in Malaysia.

Jon Emont is a journalist based in Southeast Asia. His writing appears in Tablet, The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate, New Republic, and other publications. His Twitter feed is @jonathanemont.