My Breaking Point: Burning Bridges for Rakhine

I rarely comment publically on Myanmar (who knows, I may want to take a job there someday) but the events of the last few weeks have brought me to the point where I’m willing to burn some bridges because it’s the right thing to do. Because with all of the horrific stuff going on in the world (in South Sudan, in CAR, in Nigeria, in Syria, in Iraq… the list feels endless at the moment) I often feel too powerless to do anything. Because I’m just one person, right? I mean, how far can my voice actually carry?

At some point there is a breaking point, however, that prods you into action, and I know my writing is my voice. In theory, does it do much? Who can really say. In practice (in keeping with the title of this Journal)… we have to try, or risk sacrificing our own morals and slippery grasp on humanity.

So, WHAT THE HELL is going on in Rakhine? And why do I even need to ask this question? And why does everyone think that Myanmar’s esteemed de facto leader, Ms. Suu Kyi, even cares? So far she has done nothing to reign in the police and the religious zealots who are running one of the most beleaguered communities on earth from their homes. In fact, Buddhist communities in Rahkine are being armed by the police- by the State – to help them out. Rohingya are losing EVERYTHING. Their homes, their children, their meagre possessions (because everything they had before was burnt to the ground years ago), their identities, and at this point I’ll go out on a limb and say their will to live.

Really??? Ms. Suu Kyi claims everything is by the book when it comes to Rahkine, that ‘rule of law’ prevails. Why, then, does she forbid the use of the word ‘Rohingya’ and refuse to let independent and international journalists into the region? Last week she allowed the UN to take a tour – a sanitized, sanctioned tour, surely – accompanied by a few ambassadors from the region. But we don’t yet know what difference that will make. Even more worrisome, she has condoned the use of language that changes the narrative of the issue. These days, the term ‘insurgent’ is increasingly used by government and local media, framing the discourse as something it’s not: separatist conflict, and, potentially, terrorism.

Listen, here’s the thing. Everyone reveres Ms. Suu Kyi because she defied the military for years, spent years under house arrest – she won a Nobel Peace Price for her persistence – but there is difference between protesting military dictatorship and promoting peace. She fought for democracy more than she fought for peace. Moreover, I have seen no evidence of real efforts to promote peace between religious groups in Myanmar.

Sure, she has a lot on her plate – a lot of cleaning up after the military to take care of. But it is well known that she views Muslims as second class citizens and the Rohingya not at all. She actively discriminates against them and she herself took the first concrete step towards genocide by denying the use of the word Rohingya in public. I’ve seen ethnic cleansing in action – when a government didn’t want another group in the country, but they still accepted they existed. She’s jumped the queue on the slippery slope of discrimination and ethnic cleansing and is moving rapidly down a path that will end with atrocities that we CANNOT let happen. Because we still have a chance to stop it before it’s too late.

I was heartened to see that ASEAN demanded answers about what was going on. But I don’t think it will be enough. We need to literally raise the roof on this issue – naming and shaming, whatever (legal) tactics are necessary to ensure that the international media takes the bit by their teeth and do what they do best: bring as much attention to this crisis before it’s too late. In the past, media was not a factor in conflict management. But in this day and age, where media sets our moral agenda, we need them to come to bat. And quickly.

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