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Myanmar’s Suu Kyi is no ‘Asian Mandela’

John Packer is professor of law and director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa.

The Lady has broken her silence, and left the world dumbfounded.

In the face of a "textbook case of ethnic cleansing" (to use the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi – the country's de facto head of state – has responded with 30 minutes of well-worn excuses typical of authoritarian regimes.

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Instead of a principled position with unequivocal condemnation and bold leadership expected of a global human-rights icon, "the Asian Mandela" trotted out a litany of diversions, equivocations, appeals for time and "understanding" that were tone-deaf to the depth and breadth of international concern and fly in the face of the facts before our eyes.

This is more than deeply troubling. It is more than compromising of her long-earned status and accolades. It is worse than the loss of a badly needed beacon in an unsettled and fracturing world rife with resurgent ethno-nationalism and conflicts. Ms. Suu Kyi is now a contributor, by her defence of the indefensible, to the logic and risks that attend the deep divisions and abuses that drive civil wars and international conflicts. She has excused the worst violations of human rights.

Remarkably, Ms. Suu Kyi began her remarks – delivered in English – by invoking the UN Charter and calling for a "kinder and more compassionate home for all mankind," – just, apparently, not for the weakest, poorest and most hated minority of her country, the Rohingya. She declined again even to refer to them by name, continuing a practice of denial of their very existence, preferring instead to identify them as "Muslims." Thereby she affirmed the exclusionary position of the past regime and still-applicable policy. And thereby she rejects in practice the basic international norms and standards which respect physical integrity, self-identification, existence as a community, maintenance of identity and effective participation in governance.

While the speech was out of touch with the global sentiment and urgency of the moment (not least for the almost half a million people who have fled their destroyed homes), it was also at times perfectly absurd. Talk of "equal rights to higher education" are more than disingenuous for people who have just been subjected to pogroms, who are denied basic rights and freedoms of movement, to marry, to vote, to recognition before the law and as a community.

The many excuses also fail to address the crisis. To ask for more time after only 18 months in power fails to grasp that people fleeing genocide have no time, and it takes no time to act decisively to condemn unequivocally, to demand the cessation of violations, to insist upon protection of the vulnerable, to facilitate relief.

It also takes no time (and no money) to reconfer citizenship on whole populations stripped of their citizenship by a law some decades old. Commitments to implement a "strategy and national verification process" for possibly returning Rohingya "who have nothing to lose" are plainly ridiculous for people who just fled for their lives and have in fact just lost most if not everything. Indeed, co-operation with such "verification" schemes raises the spectre of worse to come – to be put on lists and institutionally categorized by exactly the perpetrators of genocide. Who would trust that "offer"?

There is truth in Ms. Suu Kyi's observations that Myanmar has "other problems" – a stumbling peace process, evident challenges of democratization and sustainable development. But what kind of democracy tolerates genocide? Equivocations that "all people" are suffering simply distract attention. Of all the problems in Myanmar, the plight of the Rohingya stand out. There is no need to investigate "what the real problems are" or, bizarrely, to ask the half-million or so who did not flee what calculation they made in staying.

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No, Ms. Suu Kyi, there is nothing the international community does not "understand" in what we are witnessing. Nor any doubt on the part of the victims – if you would simply ask and have the decency to recognize them and their legitimate, peaceful claims as they long ago did you and yours.

Now is the time to stand up on the side of human rights and fully inclusive democracy. Yes, this may mean challenging some basic positions of the majority, the military and of power. That should not be new for you. But to be so clearly unsympathetic, to confuse and discard fundamental principles, to fail to act when action is required, is to undermine the ground on which you've stood and to lose the confidence and trust of those who have so steadfastly supported you.

More so, it will not help Myanmar in the long run and it will undoubtedly exacerbate international divisions – including radicalization and violent extremism – in the near term, across your region and beyond.

The lost opportunity to arrest the crisis and turn Myanmar onto a genuinely democratic and peaceful trajectory is astounding and deeply disappointing.

An "Asian Mandela" the Lady has proven she is not.

Myanmar's Suu Kyi breaks silence over Rohingya exodus (Reuters)
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