Aung San Suu Kyi owes Ireland an explanation
2018-02-15 16:40:00 -


Michael McGowan 

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate of Myanmar (formerly Burma) who was once applauded as a world champion of human rights and democracy, has remained silent or been dismissive over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims of her country, whose plight has been described by the United Nations as “textbook ethnic cleansing”.


It’s not so long since she was respected as the leader of the opposition to her country’s military dictatorship, and for many an icon for human rights for which she received many international awards.


The daughter of Myanmar’s liberation movement leader Aung San who was assassinated in July 1947, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest for her opposition to the country’s brutal military dictatorship.


Today her official position is state counsellor of her country, but the world has become both angry and mystified by her stance over the persecution and suffering of the Rohingya people. Among her strongest critics are fellow Nobel peace laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


Ireland has over the years shown support and solidarity for Aung San Suu Kyi’s past opposition to Myanmar’s military dictatorship, and welcomed her to Ireland in 2012 during her first visit to Europe since 1988. On the day she received the Freedom of Dublin and was celebrated by Amnesty International, she said it was “one of the most unforgettable days of her life”.


All of that is now being regretted: the freedom of the city, the Amnesty award, the support of NGOs like Trócaire which was for a time the only Irish aid organisation in Myanmar.


Many across the world are baffled and outraged that this former world champion of human rights and democracy has lost her voice over a clear human rights abuse which contradicts everything she has represented over the years.


The Rohingya are now considered among the world’s most persecuted people. More than 600,000 have crossed the border into Bangladesh following horrific attacks that began last August. Whole villages were burnt to the ground, young men shot, women and girls raped — even babies were not spared the onslaught by many accounts.


Bangladesh deserves great credit for hosting refugees from Myanmar. It is one of the world’s poorest countries, a great part of which is under water as a result of climate change and the very existence of Bangladesh as a country is at risk. But it remains true that more than half a million Rohingya are now stranded in what’s possibly the world’s biggest refugee camp, in crowded makeshift tents amid mud, always cold and wet with rain, often knee-high in water, drinking from contaminated wells which cause diphtheria.


At least half of these refugees are children, many without parents or any adult guardians, and vulnerable to human trafficking. This is well documented and confirmed by independent sources.


The persecution and violence we have seen recently is new only in its scale and viciousness. The Rohingya are denied as a people by the Myanmar government, and for decades have been rendered stateless.


The time to intervene in this horrific tragedy is long overdue, but world interest has been poor, with few exceptions. Pope Francis, one of the world’s great campaigners for peace and justice, travelled to Myanmar where he met Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leadership, and to Bangladesh which is hosting many of the refugees. And Save the Children has set up 67 emergency shelters or ‘child safe spaces’. Much more is required.


Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland, with its considerable influence and reputation in the UN and the EU, and with a president in Michael D Higgins who is respected internationally as a human rights campaigner, is entitled to an explanation from Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to intervene.

Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.



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