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 New York 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. The U.S. Holocaust Museum has also warned that a genocide against the Rohingya may be looming.
For shame, Suu Kyi. We honored you and fought for your freedom — and now you use that freedom to condone the butchery of your own people?
“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. Hannah Beech, my New York Times colleague who has provided outstanding coverage from the border, put it this way: “I’ve covered refugee crises before, and this was by far the worst thing that I’ve ever seen.”
It’s not that Suu Kyi is organizing the killings (she does not control the military), 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.
When a Rohingya woman bravely recounted how her husband had been shot dead and how she and three teenage girls had been gang-raped by soldiers, Suu Kyi’s Facebook page mocked the claims as “fake rape.”
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.
“We applauded Aung San Suu Kyi when she received her Nobel Prize because she symbolized courage in the face of tyranny,” noted Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”