Feet of clay: Aung San Suu Kyi, UNHCR and the Rohingya refugees

Idolatry is a dangerous habit. As a starry-eyed liberal teenager, I knew the names I was supposed to venerate. Aung San Suu Kyi was on the list, sandwiched somewhere between Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela on the roll-call of twentieth-century saints. But idols, of course, usually turn out to have feet of clay. Suu Kyi’s nasty little secret? Turns out she’s a nationalist too, reluctant to comment upon the political exclusionof the Rohingya from Burmese citizenship, or condemn the latest round of violent physical discrimination.

The Rohingya have only recently been discovered by the writers of World News. But they are a horribly familiar tragic figure to anyone who’s spent some time working on refugee issues. Since 1978, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been repeatedly trapped between the persecutions of the Myanmar state and its army, and what passes for sanctuary in Bangladesh: an impoverished, reluctant and occasionally violent host. If we’re voting on who deserves that most contested of titles , ‘the most persecuted minority on earth’, these Rohingya refugees, halfway to stateless, are guaranteed at least an honourable mention.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya or to acknowledge that this is not mere sectarian violence but systematic violation of a minority’s human rights is as disappointing as her suggestion that all parties should respect “the rule of law”. As others have pointed out, what can that mean when, as in the case of the Rohingya, it’s the rule of law which is perpetuating the injustice? But we’re wrong if we’re surprised to find her silent, a missing moral compass. In fact, Suu Kyi has never shown much interest in the minority question. They aren’t her people: not part of her imagined Burmese nation.
I remember talking to a contact at UNHCR several years ago, long before her release from house arrest. He shook his head at the suggestion that the Rohingya would be trapped in limbo until regime change within Burma: ‘You know, in her view, the Rohingya are not her problem’. Principles are a valuable currency for a political prisoner: but Suu Kyi was always a Burmese politician too, trapped in the same national logic, fighting for the same, enfranchised voters.
However, perhaps its convenient to have a figurehead, complete with feet of clay, ready to burn over a sudden loss of moral direction. For there’s another story too, one arguably far less palatable to Western audiences and Western power-brokers, and certainly far less visible in the mainstream media. And that’s a story about the international community’s treatment of the Rohingya over the last thirty-five years, and repeated attempts to force their return “home”.
In 1978, 200,000 Rohingya wereeffectively starved into returning from Bangladesh to Myanmar. Food rations were withdrawn: 10,000 refugees died. UNHCR sanctioned the repatriation. Fourteen years later – by which time 270,000 refugees had once more sought sanctuary in Bangladesh’s refugee camps – history was repeated. A “voluntary” repatriation in which Rohingya were beaten by Bangladeshi camp commandants, and not informed of their rights under international law to refuse to return to the Myanmar state, was supported by UNHCR. UNHCR staff admit privately – though they’re more reticent in public – that this was a disastrous repatriation, driven by personal and institutional ambition rather than an interest in refugee protection.
Today, there are once again 250,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. And although there’s been a noticeable (and encouraging) silence in recent weeks, this time last year senior UNHCR officials were waxing lyrical about Burma’s “newdawn” and repatriation was inching back on the agenda. Ironically, it may be Aung San Suu Kyi’s very public failings on the Rohingya issue that actually help to secure continued asylum space by making an imminent repatriation far more difficult for UNHCR to sanction.
So what lessons can we learn from this miserable tale? That politicians – even those who are victims of injustice themselves – are no heroes. But, perhaps more importantly, that the Rohingya crisis is not new. And while the military junta’s stranglehold on Myanmar during this protracted displacement explains in part the intractable nature of the crisis, the international community looks pretty guilty too. For the past twenty years, we’ve been fixated on “solving” refugee crises by returning them “home”.* The Rohingyan repatriations may rank among the worst, but they’re by no means the only that have taken place in dubious, violent and coerced circumstances (see Tanzania 1997: and again today, when history would appear to be repeating itself in Mtabila camp).
“Solving” our refugee problems too often turns the refugees themselves into collateral damage. And the logic underpinning this drive to repatriate is the same as that fuelling Suu Kyi’s equivocations. Ultimately, nation-states are for citizens: by definition they exclude perople even as they include others. So until we can start to untie the toxic knots of nationalism that too often strangle citizenship, the Rohingya are very likely to remain the “scum of the earth”. For that, Aung San Suu Kyi should be ashamed. But then, we should be be too.
*and for the last five I’ve been tracing this history – The Point of No Return (OUP) will be out in 2013.