An Obligation to Counter Dangerous Speech: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

Influential leaders should not speak dangerously, of course – and it can be equally important for them to denounce the Dangerous Speech or violence of others. Unfortunately Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s famous winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a living symbol of struggle for human rights and democracy – has ducked her latest fine opportunity to do this.

Her country’s military has burned at least 200 villages to the ground in the past few two months and over half a million people have fled their homes in Western Myanmar to the neighboring country of Bangladesh, while trying to avoid landmines that the Burmese military planted along their routes. The refugees are Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have long been reviled by Buddhist leaders in Myanmar – and persecuted.

Well aware of all this, Suu Kyi has refused to stand up for the Rohingya, even though dozens of equally famous icons of peace and human rights, such as Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, have entreated her to do so. She has remained largely silent, with the exception of a recent and deeply problematic speech on September 20.

Addressing her country’s parliament for 30 minutes on the topic, she deferred responsibility on her own behalf and that of her country’s military, refusing even to denounce the well-documented scorched-earth campaign that they have carried out.  She suggested, in spite of abundant evidence including satellite photographs, that the facts are not yet clear enough to blame anyone. “There have been allegations and counter-allegations, and we have to listen to all of them. And we have to make sure that these allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.” She also stated, “It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame.”

She also tried to divert attention from the violence by inviting listeners to note instead that “more than 50% of the villages of Muslims are intact,” and called for the international community to come and study “Muslims who have integrated successfully into the Rakhine state.” Rather than decrying what the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has deemed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Suu Kyi drew attention to attacks by a Rohingya extremist group on state police stations in August. The attacks, which sparked the most recent campaign of military violence, killed 12 officers. Throughout her speech she repeatedly referred to the Rohingya crisis as a “conflict” rather than a series of military attacks, again attempting to frame the situation as one with two equal sides. While there is indeed a Rohingya militia, only a tiny percentage of the Rohingya population is involved (estimates place the size of the militia between 170 and 500 men, or 0.05% of Myanmar’s estimated Rohingya population). Emphasizing the attacks of the militia while minimizing those carried out by the Burmese military creates a harmful false equivalency. In another recent example, U.S. President Donald Trump said there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” after white supremacists killed a woman and injured dozens at their rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

Unfortunately, the persecution of the Rohingya has been underway for many decades, and dangerous speech was prevalent many months before the most recent outbreak of violence. Interviews with Myanmar police officers published by Reuters last November reveal many of the hallmarks of dangerous speech. For example, Buddhist leaders – politicians, monks, other public personalities, constantly suggest that Muslims present a mortal threat to the Buddhist population – a powerful method of justifying violence.  “These Muslims are trying to abuse our Buddhist women and people, so I want to protect our country from them,” said one police officer. “They [Muslims] are trying to seize land and extend their territory in northern Rakhine and kill Rakhine ethnics,” said another. The first statement also reveals another striking hallmark, or typical pattern, of dangerous speech: a perceived threat to women by the targeted group.

Is is too much to ask of Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out against the actions of her security forces? Admittedly, it is highly unusual for a civilian leader to criticize the military’s current actions. In the aftermath of the U.S. military’s torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, for example, then President George W. Bush noted that “the prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values” – blaming only a few soldiers, not their commanders or anyone else.

It is also true that Suu Kyi is something of a political hostage to her country’s military. The previous military government wrote the current constitution of Myanmar, and included a clause specifically to bar her from the Presidency – it states that the President cannot have a parent, spouse, legitimate child or a child’s spouse with citizenship in another country (both of her sons are British citizens). Instead, she holds office under the title of “state councilor.” The constitution also guarantees a high level of decision-making power for military officials: for example, it guarantees that one quarter of all seats in parliament will be held by members of the armed forces. And currently, more than half of the National Defence and Security Council, a body that has the power to suspend government, are military appointees. Because of this, Aung San Suu Kyi has very little authority to control the armed forces. But it is precisely because she does not have that political authority that it is essential for her to speak out. What she has is her immensely influential voice.

Suu Kyi did condemn the actions of the military in her past life as a political dissident.  In fact, she became internationally famous when she was held under house arrest for nearly 15 years for her criticism of the military junta that had ruled Burma since 1962. The moral authority she gained through her pro-democracy work is in part what has made her current lack of response so bewildering and disappointing. Suu Kyi’s stature and moral authority matter. In the same way that a speaker’s influence can increase the likelihood that their speech against a targeted group will actually incite violence, a speaker with great moral influence has an increased opportunity for effective counter speech.

In recent weeks, Suu Kyi has been criticized for staying silent and “burying her head in the sand,” but her statements have gone beyond silence. They actively attempt to shift attention away from the violence and affirmatively reject the obligation that a leader has to denounce ethnically-based violence and dangerous speech that occurs in her country. Aung San Suu Kyi must condemn the military’s violent campaign against Rohingya civilians.