(AFP) – Aung San Suu Kyi’s global image is in tatters over her stubborn refusal to protect the Rohingya – but her stance has been widely applauded inside Myanmar where hatred abounds for the Muslim minority.
Desperate Rohingya have fled Rakhine state since Aug 25 in droves, trudging through mud-slaked hills and paddy fields in a human tide that has shocked the international community.
Nearly 164,000 Rohingya have so far made it to Bangladesh, fleeing burning villages and alleged atrocities by Myanmar security forces and Buddhist mobs.
It is the latest violent turn in the torrid history of the stateless minority, who are denied citizenship in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and given the caustic label of illegal ‘Bengali’ immigrants.
Suu Kyi, feted for her years of peaceful opposition to Myanmar’s junta rulers, has been urged to speak up for the Rohingya, with Muslim nations and the UN leading condemnation of her government.
But the 72-year-old has not bent to pressure, in a country where the Rohingya question has overshadowed Myanmar’s emergence from full military rule.
Rights groups who once held Suu Kyi aloft as a beacon of freedom now accuse her of being at best unmoved by their plight, and at worst, complicit in them being driven out of Myanmar.
“By not speaking out against these abuses, she is increasingly losing her moral and political credibility,” said James Gomez, of Amnesty International, which campaigned tirelessly for her release from house arrest.
It is a far cry from 2012 when then US president Barack Obama lionised the Nobel Peace Prize winner, known as The Lady, from the garden of her Yangon villa as “an icon of democracy who has inspired so many people”.
This week Malala Yousafzai aimed a tweet at her fellow Nobel laureate for staying silent on the “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya, while 365,000 people have signed a petition calling for Suu Kyi’s Nobel to be rescinded.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went even further, accusing her government of presiding over a “genocide”.
The Lady’s not for turning
Suu Kyi has not budged.
Instead the Facebook page of her State Counsellor’s office has pumped out photographs of alleged atrocities by Rohingya militants and chastised NGOs and the international media coverage of the crisis.
On Wednesday, in her first comments since the violence unfurled, Suu Kyi chose to condemn a “huge iceberg of misinformation” on a crisis that has officially left around 430 people dead.
Her statement made no mention of the Rohingya flocking to Bangladesh and she is yet to visit Rakhine.
Nor has she categorically promised to rescind the web of punitive laws restricting the Rohingya to apartheid-like conditions, unable to work or move freely around the country.
Those are powerful recruitment tools for the militants from the nascent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), whose attacks on Aug 25 sparked the latest crisis.
But inside Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s star remains undimmed.
Myanmar social media is awash with memes, cartoons and commentary lambasting foreign media and pillorying Malala for her intervention.
One comment in defence of The Lady, shared 22,000 times on Facebook, hailed Suu Kyi’s stance noting “we are proud of her”.
Anger rages against the Rohingya militants, with 27,000 ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus also displaced by the so-called ‘Black Friday’ attacks.
The militants want “to create a Muslim state” in Rakhine, according to Thaung Thun, a security adviser to the government, feeding a favoured narrative of Buddhist nationalists.
Many are baffled at the opprobrium poured on a politician and a country facing a serious threat.
“Myanmar people don’t understand criticism against (her) because this is a matter of national security,” said Nyo Ohn Myint of the Myanmar Peace Centre.
Power and progress?
Observers say the Rohingya crisis peels back complex questions of ethnic and religious identity, politics and power in a country only now emerging from five decades of military rule.
Suu Kyi’s popular appeal dwarfs her political power, with the military in full control of security.
Her supporters say that makes her an easy punching bag for army actions she cannot control.
Other factors have tweaked the temperature.
Buddhist nationalists, led by firebrand monks, have operated a long Islamophobic campaign calling for all ‘Bengalis’ to be pushed out of the country.
They routinely criticise Suu Kyi for being too soft on the Rohingya.
The word ‘Rohingya’ can barely be uttered in Myanmar without provoking argument, while there is little empathy for a people seen as outsiders who have fled in huge numbers since 2012.
Around 250,000 Rohingya have moved to Bangladesh since last October – a large chunk of the estimated 1.1 million who once lived in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi has repeatedly called for more time to resolve a complicated crisis that ignited five years ago.
She has refused to allow in a UN fact-finding team but said Myanmar would abide by the findings of a government-appointed commission, headed by ex-UN chief Kofi Annan.
Its findings, published Aug 24, urged Myanmar to create a pathway to citizenship for the Rohingya and roll back asphyxiating restrictions on them.
Hours later Arsa struck, scores were killed and the exodus began.
Suu Kyi’s reputation as a defender of the downtrodden now lies in shreds.
“At the very least she should use her position to call for restraint and de-escalate the situation,” Amnesty’s Gomez added.