This week, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum made the painful decision to rescind its 2012 Elie Wiesel Award. It was awarded to Myanmar’s civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for her commitment to our vision of a world where citizens and leaders confront hate, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.
She stood for the rights of all of Myanmar’s citizens in the face of decades of oppressive military rule. At that time, we celebrated her release from house arrest and the prospects of what a democratic Myanmar could become under her leadership. Today, we are struggling to comprehend how she can continue to remain silent as genocidal violence is unleashed under her watch.
Over the past five years, I and other experts from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide have traveled repeatedly to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to understand the mounting persecution and violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim community.
The museum’s first reports from the country documented the establishment of ghettos and internment camps of Rakhine state, where the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya reside. We found the promulgation of racist legislation, the rescission of basic civil rights, such as freedom of movement and assembly, and warned of potential future atrocities.
Since that first trip, those warning signs have been borne out. In the last year, we have documented the flight of more than 700,000 Rohingya from the country and what we now view as “mounting evidence of genocide.” The United Nations and our own State Department have classified it as “ethnic cleansing” and have called for a more thorough examination of the crimes being committed.
Importantly, as we have assiduously detailed in our reports, these crimes are being directed and committed by Myanmar’s powerful military forces. The military that held Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years have committed countless crimes against other racial and ethnic groups besides the Rohingya. Under Myanmar’s constitution, the military continues to control 25 percent of all seats in Parliament and some of the most powerful ministries: Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. Responsibility for atrocities against the Rohingya lies first and foremost with the military.
But as evidence of the atrocities began to come to light, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy Party deflected attention — describing allegations of atrocities as “rumors,” “fabricated stories,” and “one-sided accusations.”
Later on, we were shocked that under her leadership as state counsellor and foreign minister the government has refused to cooperate with United Nations human rights investigators. It has also promulgated hateful rhetoric against the Rohingya community, and has denied humanitarian access to displaced Rohingya. Recent arrests of two Reuters journalists who were uncovering information about massacres of Rohingya signaled a chilling throwback to practices under the military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi is overseeing not only genocidal acts, but attempts to keep the truth of such crimes from getting out.
We understand the difficult situation Aung San Suu Kyi faces in confronting decades of military misrule. However, their orchestration of the crimes against Rohingya and the severity of the atrocities in recent months demand that she use her moral authority to address this situation. While Myanmar has taken an important first steps on the road to democracy, any transition that does not protect the country’s most vulnerable communities will be incomplete.
As someone we, and many others, have celebrated for her commitment to universal human rights, we expected Aung San Suu Syi to unequivocally condemn the military’s brutal campaign against civilians and show strong signs of solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population. Her actions and inactions run fundamentally counter to the award we gave her and to the values Elie Wiesel championed throughout his life.
Many Rohingya we’ve met in refugee and interment camps echoed this sentiment, expressing hope that Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral leadership would end the violence and persecution they have faced for decades. Following the crisis over the past several years, we hear more and more frustration from Rohingya survivors and leaders in Myanmar’s democratically elected leadership.
Calls for Aung San Suu Kyi to do more to stem the wanton criminality of the Burmese military or speak out against the anti-Rohingya rhetoric in her country, are sometimes met with caution. Many long-time Myanmar watchers warn that Aung San Suu Kyi is in a precarious position — that while she serves as state counsellor and de facto leader, she does not control the military.
Some warn of the threat of a military coup, or at least a weakened democratic transition. Others warn that Aung San Suu Kyi is facing strong anti-Rohingya sentiment from the general population — something that she should address but not in a way that could threaten her continued leadership. Still, others contend that Myanmar’s democratic transition is barely three years old, emerging from more than 50 years of military rule, and that it is unreasonable for her or the country’s nascent democratic institutions to effectively address decades of persecution and hate.
But any democratic transition without the country’s minority populations is incomplete at best and potentially genocidal, at its worst. And even though the Rohingya may be unpopular in Myanmar, pandering to racism and atrocities, even if it ensures broader public support, is an unacceptable stance for any leader. Speaking out against ethnic cleansing should not be too high a bar.
In her acceptance video shown at our annual Holocaust Days of Remembrance in 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi praised the many Holocaust survivors assembled that night for teaching us, as she put it, “not to lose their integrity in the face of the greatest difficulties.” As she faces great difficulties of her own at home, there is still an opportunity for her to take action on the ideals that made her a symbol of hope and peace for so many.
Cameron Hudson is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.