Last week Buddhist monks in Burma led a demonstration in the city of Mandalay against the Muslim minority Rohingya, the first large monk-led demonstrations in Burma since the 2007 uprising against military rule. But things were different this time. Instead of marching for democracy, the monks were marching is support of President Thein Sein’s proposal that the Rohingya, described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most oppressed minorities, be segregated and deported.
The 2007 protests, called the Saffron Revolution after the color of monks’ robes, were widely hailed as a defining moment in the history of Burma. Sadly, this too may be on the same order, and the current situation seems as surreal as it is ironic. Thein Sein was Prime Minister in 2007, when the government waged a violent crackdown on the monks. Now, the monks are supporting him.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson told Voice of America last week that the monks’ moral authority “raises the stakes in the sectarian tensions”:
The fact that these monks just several years ago were protesting for democracy and human rights, and are today now protesting for exclusion and potential deportation of a particular ethnic group causes some concern that the government in Burma may in fact listen to these kinds of voices.”
I wonder, though, if the monks haven’t now lost their moral authority. I am beginning to wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s champion of democracy, isn’t finding herself on “shaky moral ground.”
Aung San Suu Kyi continues to pick up criticism over the way she has reacted to the Rohingya controversy. As Jocelyn Gecker of the AP reports, “For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman.” A blogger at the Huffington Post asks, Should Aung San Suu Kyi be Stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize? At the Wall Street Journal, William McGowan writes this:
In Europe to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize when the Rohingya crisis peaked, Aung San Suu Kyi was like a deer caught in headlights. When asked if the Rohingya should be treated as citizens, she answered. “I do not know,” followed by convoluted statements about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance. Nowhere did she or the NLD [National League for Democracy] denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims.
According to some analysts, Ms. Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out reflected concern for her own parliamentary district, where anti-Rohingya feeling runs high. Others note the fierce racism of Buddhists in Rakhine, a state that plays a key role in the NLD’s wider electoral strategy.
The pinched response left many observers downcast. Journalist Francis Wade, who has followed the democratic transition in Burma closely, wonders whether Western observers have “overromanticized” the struggle between the NLD and the junta and if the pro-democracy movement ever had the “wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance” many presumed.”
Perhaps we’ve also “overromanticized” Aung San Suu Kyi as well. “The Lady,” as she is often called, will be in the United States next week. She’ll travel to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honor bestowed by the US Congress. She will also pay tribute to five leading activists from Burma who will accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma at an event scheduled for September 20 at Capitol. Suu Kyi will speak at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana Tuesday, September 25.
I truly don’t know what to think of all this. I find it bizarre, and terribly sad. A recent artcle in the Smithsonian.com suggests that “It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism.” Well, I don’t understand.
I fail to see how anyone who has a commitment to Buddhist ideals can remain silent in the face of this kind of injustice. I’m willing to cut Aung San Suu Kyi some slack. I’m hoping there is some reason we don’t know about that explains her reluctance to speak out. I don’t feel quite as generous toward other quarters . . .
As the Saffron Revolution gives way to Saffron Racism, we also hear the sound of the Saffron Silence, as Buddhists worldwide continue to be largely silent on this issue . . . and once again, we say hello to darkness, our old friend . . .