Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya, and the Challenge of Faith

AP In this photo taken on Sept. 8, 2012, Muslims gather during a visit by a delegation of American diplomats … Continued


In this photo taken on Sept. 8, 2012, Muslims gather during a visit by a delegation of American diplomats including U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, unseen, at a refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine State, western Myanmar. Three-and-a-half months after some of the bloodiest clashes in a generation between Myanmar’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslims known as Rohingya left the western town of Sittwe in flames, nobody is quite sure when -or even if- the Rohingya will be allowed to resume the lives they once lived here.

She came, she saw, she conquered. The photograph of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi standing proudly with America’s smiling political elite at her Congressional Gold Medal ceremony last month in Washington, D.C., provides a powerful image of this heroine of democracy. She has justifiably caught the world’s attention and earned its love. Arizona Sen. John McCain called her “his personal hero.”

In Suu Kyi’s visit to American University where she received an honorary doctorate during her U.S. visit, we are provided with another powerful image of her, that of a supplicant Buddhist kneeling before a dozen monks to receive their blessing. She has not only become a voice for freedom and political leadership but a voice of Buddhist compassion for the Burmese people and the ethnic minority groups on the periphery who have long suffered under Burma’s oppressive government.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burmese founding father Aung San, was known to rely on her Buddhist faith for a sense of inner freedom during her 15 years of captivity after rising to power during the 1988 student uprising. After her release in 2010, she continued her work for democracy, stressing the “loving kindness” of Buddhist teachings for Burma’s democratic transition in place of feelings of hatred and revenge. She was elected to the Burmese Parliament representing the National League for Democracy, and in recent weeks, she has expressed her willingness to continue to serve her nation as the next president of Burma with elections scheduled for 2015.

With Suu Kyi’s near universal appeal and star power, she is in a unique position for both political leadership in Burma as well as a voice of Buddhist compassion and an ally for the oppressed. Buddha stressed that compassion lay at the heart of a Buddha nature and demonstrates one’s respect for the dignity of life.

Yet, Suu Kyi has remained curiously silent on one of the most urgent humanitarian issues facing Burma, the plight of the Rohingya people.

View Photo Gallery: Burma has implemented reforms in recent months and shown signs of opening up. Here’s a collection of photographs from Burma from the past two decades.

The Rohingya, whom the BBC and many NGOs call “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups,” are the little known Muslim people of the coastal Arakan state of western Burma. Over the past three decades, the Rohingya have been systematically pushed out of their homes by Burma’s military government and subjected to widespread violence along with the complete negation of their rights and even identity. They have become a stateless minority.

Many hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries. The Rohingya are surrounded by adherents of the great faiths – Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianty – all of which emphasis compassion and charity for the needy. Despite these compulsions from their faiths, many Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians in South Asia have treated the Rohingya with nothing but outright hostility.

The current situation of the Rohingya is a challenge not only for all in the region to adhere to the demands of their faiths but a challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi and the Buddhists of Burma to treat the suffering Rohingya with “loving kindness,” of which they have seen little.

The widely reported violence in July 2012 against the Rohingya by the neighboring Buddhist Rakhine people in which over 1,000 Rohingya were killed and entire villages burned to the ground must be understood in the context of this sustained campaign of oppression against the Rohingya. The violent actions of the Rakhine were committed with the complicity and, at times, participation of the government security forces.

Even the new democratic reforms have not altered the perception of the Rohingya with President Thein Sein stating in July 2012 in the wake of this violence that he would not recognize the Rohingya or their rights and wished to turn over the entire ethnic group to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees. Buddhist monks, contrary to the teachings of Buddha, staged anti-Rohingya marches in September to declare their support for the president’s proposal. The Burmese government has blocked the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from opening an aid office to assist displaced Rohingya due to the violence in Arakan state.

While many ethnic minorities in Burma, with non-Burmese peoples comprising over 30 percent of the population, have been the victims of the military junta’s oppressive measures, the Rohingya stand apart in that their very existence is threatened.

When General Ne Win and the military junta came to power in 1962, the central government began to shift away from the inclusive vision of Aung San and towards a nationalist ideology based on the Burmese ethnicity and the Buddhist faith. The Rohingya, as both non-Burmese and Muslim, were now stripped of any legitimacy and erroneously and incorrectly labeled “illegal Bengali immigrants.”

The initial push of the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign came in 1978 under Operation Naga Min with the purpose of scrutinizing everyone in the state as either a citizen or alleged “illegal immigrant.” For the Rohingya people, this resulted in widespread rape, arbitrary arrests, desecration of mosques, destruction of villages, and confiscation of lands. In the wake of this violence, nearly a quarter of a million Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, many of whom were later repatriated to Burma where they faced further rape, imprisonment, and torture.

In 1991, a second push, known as Operation Pyi Thaya, or Operation Clean and Beautiful Nation, was launched with the same purpose, resulting in another mass exodus of 200,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, with nearly 300,000 refugees remaining today, many without food or medical assistance from a Muslim population ignoring the demands for compassion in their faith towards their fellow Muslims.

With the passage of the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya were officially denied Burmese citizenship and effectively ceased to exist legally. With their loss of citizenship, the Rohingya found their lives difficult to lead. They were barred from travelling outside their villages, repairing their decaying places of worship, receiving an education in any language or even marrying and having children without rarely granted government permission, often procured through bribes which few are able to afford. The failure to receive permission for any of these innocuous acts lands the offenders in prison where men are beaten and women routinely raped.

Women who become illegally pregnant are forced to either flee the country or resort to dangerous back-alley abortions, where many die because of their inability to get adequate medical treatment due to the severe travel restrictions.

The Rohingya are also subjected to modern-day slavery, where they are forced to work on infrastructure projects, such as constructing “model villages” to house Burmese settlers intended to displace them. Women are susceptible to forced prostitution by the Burmese security forces.


U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applaud after Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi finishes her speech during a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony.

While many efforts have been made by the Burmese government towards the creation of an open and democratic political system, there is still much more to be done. Suu Kyi, following the example of inclusive leaders like Nelson Mandela, should reach out to the Rohingya people and set a positive precedent for an all-embracing society which welcomes the participation of the Rohingya as well as all the ethnic minorities of Burma. In this way, she will also be living up to the ideals of her Buddhist faith to show compassion towards those who suffer. Where she leads, others will follow.

Only when the systematic violence against the Rohingya ends can a truly democratic Burma be legitimate in the eyes of its own people and the international community.

But the first step is for Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma to acknowledge the Rohingya exist.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland. Harrison Akins, an Ibn Khaldun Chair research fellow at American, is assisting Ahmed with his forthcoming book, “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam

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  • Robert2011GB

    Akbar Ahmad can talk! He come from a country, Pakistan, where there is systematic persecution of religious minorities.

    Clean up your your own religion first, Ahmad!

  • aby2

    Treatment of women and minorities is the objective test of civilization. Muslim societies are inherently exclusive. We are used to hear of such persecution by Muslims and not Buddhists. For all indications Buddhists are better than this. This is an anomaly that needs to be rectified.

  • 7891


  • hh_munjani

    If the Muslim minority treated well then there is no limit to their demands. They seek conversion of Buddhist to Islam as the case in Sri Lanka. If they will be given their own state they ask for seperate nation as in Thailand and Kashmir.Better they should be treated as prescribed by Sharia. Minorities should be given gurantee from the state to live only. No more rights as mentioned in Sharia.

  • Agridome

    Aung San Suu Kyi should be ashamed of herself regarding her silence on the Rohingyas. She has won the Nobel Prize, been toasted in Western capitals but says nothing about this. I’ve travelled to SE Bangladesh and seen the Rohingyas refugee camps, an indictment of Burmese indifference and persecution of these people. And Aung San Suu Kyi is guilty too. Why doesn’t she stand up and say something? She is playing to the worst prejudices of human nature. She should be called out. It should be the first question from western media. Aung San Suu Kyi, you can do better than this.

  • PanamaHat

    I have lived and worked here in SEAsia for the last 10 years and there is nothing quite like the outright racism towards the Rohingya from the Thais and Burmese, primarily – like stopping their escape rafts, stealing their food and valuables and setting them adrift again . . . thanks to the Royal Thai Navy, surely a clear indication of how the Thai royal family see these people as well.

    Here, in Malaysia, there are countless Rohingya in camps and illegally working and hiding away.

    Aung San Suu Kyi has been a major disappointment to millions here, including the majority of us expats, in her silence towards the Rphungya ‘problem’.

    She is simply no better than the generals in power and should be deeply ashamed of herself, wrapping herself in Buddhist love while condemning a whole people to live in dire straits at best.

    She is NOT worth the adulation she had received and is just another example of the privileged class in a desperately poor country . . .

  • PanamaHat

    Buddhists are better than this? Have you ever been to Cambodia or Thailand and seen he way your Buddhists treat one another?

    An anomaly? Thai Muslims being persecuted by the Buddhist Thai army?

    Perhaps a bit of knowledge would assist

  • Ko Maung Hla

    She is just an ordinary MP and she can’t magically solve a problem born out of decades of corruption by border control and immigrition officers.

  • nancydancer

    Do you really believe this – do you have proof – should not all humans beings be allowed to live in peace – I have not yer heard any proof of the malevolent intentions of this small group of people – you seem to be labelling all with the evil brush of Taliban

  • thekind78

    A new “Great Game”.

  • BundyGil

    She can’t embrace them yet, Too many entrenched hatreds. Only when she gains the presidency and strips the current crop of ruling generals of power can she even mention Rohingya.
    To think anything else shows Akmar Ahmed’s political naivety. That’s something that Aung San Suu Kyi certainly is not.

  • worf

    Should we also hold you personally responsible for any failures committed by people who share your faith or government?

  • Tarek.Enamul

    what do you mean by this? you’re supporting killing of rohingas or you are not supporting that someone has voiced against this from a country where this type of problem exists? does it really matter who raise voice against annomaly?

  • cap

    It’s interesting how a Muslim tells a Buddhist what do to in order to be Buddhist. I don’t see people from other religion teaching Muslims what they need to do in order to be a good Muslim.

  • cap

    various details have been left out therefore giving a misleading or incomplete picture .

    Brithish documents showed they found only 35,000 Muslims locally resident in 1825. About 100, 000 came in during British rule. However, Muslims now number around 800,000. Where did he other 650, 000 came from. Bangladesh Ambassador to Burma ( also Chairman of the UN Security Council lot long after) stated that in 1975 “there were upward of ½ million Bangalee trespassers in Arakan” and that the Burmese government had “some right” to eject over 500,000 “Bangalee trespassers. Burma did not want to press the issue at that time.

    In 1946 Muslims Bengali wanted the area they occupied to belong to another country ( Pakistan) and requested self-rule. In 1942 when the country was in chaos they massacred people of the host country which they entered ( Burma) . It looks like now in 2010 they are at it again. In the last two years Muslims have tried to chase Arakanese away from town in their own country by traumatizing them with a series of attack on Arakanese villages, not to mention gang rape and murder. Eventually Muslims launched the riot on June 8, 2012 when Arakanese people finally stood up and punish the rapists.


    In 1942 the country was in chaos because there was a war taken place between Japan and British in Burma. Bengali Muslims took advantage of the chaos and turned against people in the host country ( Burma) . Thousands ( 17, 000 ) of armed Bengali Muslim massacred Rakhine local people and burned down their homes . Fleeing victims were thrown back into the fire. According to record, there were over 200 village totally vanished with only a few villages left.


    Bengalis requested self-rule ( to rule themselves under Islamic Sharia Law instead ) and wanted Bhuthidawng & Maungdaw belong to another country-Pakistan . They later rebelled on June 9th,1948, by the name “Mujahid Organization” to push their agenda.


    Burma Independence



  • cap

    There are various mistakes in this article, the riot took place in June 2012 , not July 2012. There were 80 to 90 death which includes from both sides. Rohingyas launched the June 8 riot after their Friday prayer.


    “Freedom of religion” is generally interpreted by the religionistas to mean “freedom for MY religion, screw everyone else.” Them Rohypnols can get their own Nobel laureate.

    When your catholic buddies start bleating about “freedom of religion”, ask them about the Cathars and the Albigensians. I’d tell you to ask a Cathar of and Albigensian, but you can’t. The catholics genocided them out of existence.

  • akhtarman

    The suppression by Buddhists is not surprising. Look at the violence and attacks on Tamils by Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Look at the violence and political turbulence that plagues Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, etc.

    Before naive Westerners keep pushing for “Tibet” and the Buddhists there, they should remember that they aren’t so peaceful and nice as they appear. They can be downright violent, stubborn and racist (esp to darker-skinned) people. Talk to the Rohingya Muslims on that one.

  • akhtarman

    Aung San Suu Kyi is a fraud that fashionable Westerners love to support- like Dalai Lama, Free Tibet, etc. This proves it!

  • akhtarman

    Buddhist societies are terrible. Racist,violent,poor, political terrible. Go to Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, etc.

  • WaterMelon

    You have rightly corrected the author when he missed the date of the violence by one month i.e. June 2012 and not July 2012. But then you say that that the Rohingyas wanted to join Pakistan in 1946. There was no Pakistan anywhere in the world in 1946 nor was it certain in 1946 that there will be a Pakistan later on. And btw Pakistan is 2000 miles away from all this so how does it fit into the equation? You are trying to mislead everyone. You say That the Rohingyas wanted self rule in order to impose sharia law, now there are 50+ Muslim countries around the world with only Saudi Arabia and Iran imposing sharia law, so how do you know the Rohingyas wanted to impose sharia law? Do you Buddhists follow Nostradamus these days.

  • WaterMelon

    A Muslim has no right tell a Buddhist how to be a godd Buddhist, but if a Buddhist despite his peaceful pretrensions goes on to kill, burn, rape, mutiliate, maim and dismember a Muslim or anyone else a Muslim should advise the Buddhist to desist from such activities or atleast stop pretending to be peaceful in front of Western audiences. Shouldn’t you think so.

  • Bluhorizon

    The article is the view of a Pakistani and as is so often the case the oppressed Muslims are shrouded in the mantel of the belligerent victim–but the root causes of the problem are not really addressed.

    My first experience in the area of West Burma began in 2003 when I went there for WHO to administer TB tests. Coming from Thailand, it was graphic how decidedly poorer the people in W Burma were compared to Thailand. From the first I could see that the Roihynga were a distinct group, which dressed and looked different from the native Burmese.

    The Rohingya have immigrated from Bengal, SW India, later called East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, for at least 150 years and this was made easy by lack of border enforcement. Originally called “Bengali-Muslims”, the name “Rohingya” came from antiquity and was adopted about 1960 as a way of identifying themselves as an ethnic group rather than immigrants.

    Who is a citizen is at this point quite impossible to say. Burma is a country that does not confer automatic citizenship on people borne of immigrants and the Burmese do not accept Roihybnga as citizens.

    This attitude about citizenship may be in conflict with western standards but most Muslim countries and some others also do not confer citizenship automatically upon birth. A 1984 law formally excluded the Rohingya as one of the country’s 135 ethnicities, meaning most are denied basic civil rights and are not recognized as citizens.

    One might say the Bengalis were “invited” into Burma by lack of border enforcement, but things never went well from the start. They looked like East Indians, dressed like East Indians, were Muslims, did not speak the same language and did not assimilate with the locals who were Buddhists. This failure to assimilate or even dress similarly persists today and is a root cause of the problem, as it is in many places with Muslim people. They act like a state within a state,

    In 1942 there was a Muslim uprising, followed by a lot of killing back and forth.

  • Bluhorizon

    They remained active in several areas, trying to wrest northern Rakhine townships from Burma and become part of Pakistan. So, the matter of insurrection never quite went away.

    Matters were finally brought to a head by the increasing Islamifi-cation of a few Roihynga, furthering the gap between the two cul-tures. Since matters were always sensitive, it did not take many bad apples to spoil everything and in a population of maybe 700,000 there were the inevitable hot-heads.

    Many Rakhine Burmese believe there is a plan is to “convert us all to Islam and take over Rakhine.” There have been attacks on the Buddhists, forced conversions of some of their women, threats and attempts to expand Islamic influence, unsettlingly similar to what happened in the late 1940s. Some accuse Saudi fundamentalists of arming the region’s newly politicized Islamists to inspire jihad. Others accuse aide organizations of taking money from the Saudis and therefore are biased against the Buddhists. And of course the Roihynga have many similar claims of mistreatment and injustice.

    The Rohingya seem to be the victim in this matter and clearly they are the ones currently persecuted. But a strong sympathetic case can be also be made for the native residents of Rakhine Provence, who are poor and had to endure virtually unrestricted illegal immigration of hundreds of thousands, approaching a million even poorer people from Bengal and endure several uprisings and jihad. The huge population increase of the Muslims has exacerbated the situation. As you can see, this problem and its roots are complex but the hatred and vehemence are strangely reminiscent of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

    It is easy for armchair diplomats to make accusations one way or the other but placing blame now is clearly a matter of opinion, not fact. In this case (as is so often the case) there is plenty of blame to go around and no good solution in sight. Neighboring Bangla-desh has refugees up to the eyeballs and will take

  • Bluhorizon

    I believe he was actually referring to the uprising in 1947-8. At that time Pakistan had already invaded Kashmir and was already waging asymetric war against India.