Mon 1 Oct 2012
Filed under: Opinion
As an ethnic Kachin human rights activist from Burma, I have been supporting Aung San Suu Kyi since I was 13 years old. She has been an icon, a hero and an inspiration for me. Living in London as a refugee, I was heavily involved in the campaign to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.
I travelled across the UK, sometimes speaking to audiences of a dozen people in a church hall, sometime to hundreds at bigger conferences. I spoke about how she was a remarkable leader, of how she represents peaceful resistance to oppression, a true leader for Burma not only for the majority Burman people, but for all ethnic groups in the country. I told them she was an icon of freedom and an example for women all over the world. But today, less than two years after her release from house arrest, I feel sad and I feel betrayed.
Not only myself, but almost all of the Kachin people have fully supported Aung San Suu Kyi throughout her time leading the struggle for democracy and human rights. After decades of being attacked by the Burmese Army, committing terrible human rights abuses, for many Kachin our only experience of the Burman was when they came to rape and kill. But Aung San Suu Kyi was able to gain our trust, and the trust of many other ethnic groups. We had great hope in her.
However, in the past year our expectations and hopes have faded day after day. In June 2011, when the Burmese Army broke a 17-year-long ceasefire and deliberately attacked civilians, firing mortar bombs into villages, committing terrible human rights abuses, and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, we looked to her for support, just as we always supported her. We didn’t get it. There was silence, and then evasive answers when questions were asked.
This year, the same thing has happened over the situation in Rakhine State. Although she has power to let the world know what is going on in Burma, she has never spoken out against the Burmese government’s attacks against Kachin civilians nor the situation in Rakhine and government organised abuses against the Rohingya. With her international stature she could pressure the regime to stop armed conflicts in ethnic areas, especially in Kachin State. She famously asked the international community, “Please use your liberty to promote ours,” but she isn’t using her liberty to help the tens of thousands of Kachin civilians being attacked by the Burmese Army.
In one recent speech in Burmese at Queens College, USA, she says that the silence was justified so as “not to add fire to any side of the conflict.” What does it mean? Does she really see this as if it were two equal sides fighting each-other, when in fact it is Kachin people who have been attacked by the Burmese Army? She said, “What is it that I have to strongly condemn? If it is a human rights violation then I will strongly condemn.”
And yet, she remained silent over serious human rights violations committed by government army soldiers, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, the use of human shields, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labour. Elderly women, children, and a disabled woman were all raped and many killed afterwards. Doesn’t she see that many women and girls are being raped by the Burmese Army soldiers she said she has a ‘soft spot’ for? Is her understanding of what is going on in Kachin State so bad that she doesn’t understand how insensitive it was to use language like that?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s principled stance and moral example once inspired me. I understand that now she is trying to use the opportunity of the current situation to bring change to my country, and that this must mean taking difficult decisions and making compromises. But a balance must be struck between compromise and principles. You cannot be neutral, cannot stay silent, in the face of such terrible abuses, because silence and neutrality enables those abuses to continue.
Many Kachin people are now losing trust in Aung San Suu Kyi, but the only beneficiary of this is the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the few people who had the ability to gain the trust of all ethnic people. If that trust is lost, then this could be a big problem in the future. The military and their allies have always played divide and rule.
Yet at the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen the path of becoming a politician, and must not be above criticism. Will she listen to criticism from the public, and try to understand and respond, as a good politician should, or will she stick rigidly to her approach, just as the generals always stuck rigidly to theirs?
Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent comments I feel angry, betrayed and sad, but I will never give up hope, including my hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will try to listen and understand our concerns, and once again speak out for those facing human rights abuses by the Burmese Army.