When Secretary Hilary Clinton visited Burma in December 2011, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly told her that she would rather be regarded as a politician than an icon. To that, Clinton replied, “Get ready to be attacked”.
And sure enough, criticism of her silence on the plight of the persecuted Rohingyas is following her as she embarks on an award crammed, landmark visit to the US. Disaffected rights groups and scholars have become more vocal with their attacks, with one academic even going so far as to question the credentials for her 1991 Nobel Peace prize.
Some observers say she has no option other than to remain silent as politically, she cannot afford to antagonise the majority Bamar Buddhists, including powerful opinion makers like the monks, who vociferously oppose rehabilitating the Muslim Rohingyas whom they regard as illegal aliens and should be deported back to their country of origin, Bangladesh, or some other third country.
If remaining silent on the Rohingya issue is to avoid alienating her supporters with an eye to the 2015 elections, what could be the rationale for her silence on the terrible suffering of the Kachins in northeastern Burma?
Since the resumption of hostilities in June 2011, after a 17-year ceasefire, the number of Kachins being displaced by the war is increasing at an alarming rate, estimated to be nearing the one million mark. These IDPs are in dire need of the most basic of human requirements. They have been driven off from camps along the border and forced to return to conflict zones by Chinese authorities. Their security in government-controlled territory is tenuous at best, when even the shelter of church-based camps could not protect them from being subjected to summary arrests and torture.
To the profound disappointment and frustration of Kachins at large, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the one Bamar they look to more than any other to come to their aid, has chosen to remain silent and indifferent to their suffering. Unlike the Rohingya situation, the opposition leader does not have to walk such a political tight rope in speaking up for the Kachins. There is clearly no national identity controversy involved here. Neither is there any danger of inflaming the ire of her Bamar constituents. In fact, the sympathy and support ordinary Bamars have shown displaced Kachins, most notably that of 88 Generation leaders, has been remarkable.
When a response of sorts did come, it was one that sent shock waves throughout the Kachin world. During panel discussions at the London School of Economics on 19 June 19 2012, when pressed on why she had not spoken out against atrocities in the Kachin area, she replied rather testily that, “the root, the cause of the (Kachin) conflict” still needs to be determined.
To the Kachins, this displayed a stunning lack of understanding, or perhaps interest, in Kachin affairs. That she is still not clear after all these years, that the denial of rights promised by her own father, independence architect Gen Aung San, is the root cause of the Kachin conflict, shocked and dismayed the world-wide Kachin public.
Some of her supporters coming to her defense have said the Kachins need to be patient because she is sure to be working on the situation behind closed doors and that she knows what she is doing and that it is not realistic to expect her to accomplish everything at once.
To this, we Kachins would counter that, although we may be simple hill tribe folks, we are not so naïve as to expect she will be able to solve all our problems. We know only too well, as chief peace negotiator Minister Aung Min himself has indicated, that stopping this internecine war rests mainly with the army. When the army does not even listen to the President’s orders, given twice, to stand down, everyone understands that stopping this war rests solely with the military. The army has its own agenda for continuing this war, foremost being maintaining its grip on this resource-rich area where personal and institutional fortunes are so intricately intertwined.
The Kachins cannot be expected to stand idly by while their kinsmen suffer. What they are hoping for from the Nobel peace laureate and influential parliamentarian is to show solidarity with the downtrodden Kachins, to speak up and be a voice for the voiceless Kachins.
Mere platitudes, like the need for peace in ethnic areas, are of no help. What she needs to do is to use her moral and political authority to ensure that the war-displaced Kachins receive the aid they desperately need and capitalise on her international stature to draw attention to the gross rights violations being committed in war torn areas, and the need for UN mediators to monitor and prevent such abuses. Even if these measures do not materialise, the mere fact that she made an effort, that she chose to speak up, would have spoken volumes with the Kachin people. As the 88 Generation leaders have shown, such actions can be accomplished without causing political jeopardy.
Although political ambitions may have taken precedence over moral considerations, remaining silent may not prove to be that politically astute either. A democratically elected national leader needs the trust and cooperation of ethnic minorities, not just the majority Bamars. By remaining silent and aloof to ethnic suffering, she stands to lose, if she has not lost it already, the support so overwhelmingly bestowed on her in the beginning, as daughter of the country’s independence hero. As a Karen refugee at the Mae La camp remarked during her Thai visit in May 2012, “If she doesn’t talk about the conflict in Kachin state, what can she do for the Karen?”
The age old adage about silence being golden may not always apply as there can be consequences, political as well as moral, to remaining silent when people around you, especially those you hope to represent, are being so cruelly oppressed.
-Pangmu Shayi is a political analyst at Kachinland News