Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her lifelong battle for freedom
During a visit to Britain earlier this year, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar — formerly known as Burma — was given a hero’s welcome. After being met by the Queen and Prince William at Buckingham Palace, she travelled to the Guildhall to be given the Freedom of the City of London.
And in so many ways, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her lifelong battle for freedom, deserves all the acclaim.
The 72-year-old, whose late husband Michael Aris, a renowned Oxford historian, was a British citizen, is a truly extraordinary woman. After attending St Hugh’s College, Oxford (where Theresa May was also a student), she returned to her native Myanmar to join the noble struggle to end military rule.
The former British colony obtained independence in 1947 — largely thanks to the leadership of Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, an army general, who was assassinated by jealous rivals that year. However, in 1962, the country fell under the control of a brutal military dictatorship.
Following the footsteps of her father, Suu Kyi displayed remarkable courage and made personal sacrifices in her fight for freedom. She was held under house arrest by the regime for 15 years. The generals made plain that she would only be released if she promised to leave the country never to return.
She refused, even though her husband and two young sons were in Britain.
This decision earned her the respect and affection of her people — and carried her to a famous victory when Myanmar at last held free elections two years ago.
Suu Kyi is now State Counsellor — in effect prime minister — and the gleaming symbol of her country’s emancipation from an evil and destructive dictatorship. Since then, she has significant achievements to her credit.
Political prisoners have been released from jail and her country is making rapid economic strides forward. She’s been lionised by politicians across the world — Hillary Clinton honouring ‘this extraordinary woman’ and Harriet Harman speaking of her own ‘utmost admiration’.
Her government is complicit in the military-led persecution of Myanmar’s minority Muslim population. Pictured, a Rohingya man from Myanmar carries a child in a sack and walks through rice fields after crossing over to the Bangladesh side of the border
There is, however, a dark and troubling side to the story of Suu Kyi.
Her government is complicit in the military-led persecution of Myanmar’s minority Muslim population (the country’s dominant religion is Buddhism) which is as ugly as anything carried out during the days of junta rule.
Huge numbers of Muslims have been subject to a systematic programme of rape, murder, starvation and intimidation that began last autumn.
Over the past several months, more than 120,000 have been driven from their homes following a campaign of violence. Hundreds have been killed, with one human rights charity publishing chilling eyewitness accounts of people being beheaded or even burned alive in bamboo cages by security services.
There are many reported cases of gang-rape, normally carried out by soldiers from the country’s powerful, self-ruling army in their easily recognisable green uniforms.
At least 70,000 have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh (where, sadly, they are treated almost as abominably).
Matters have worsened in recent days with more deaths as Muslim insurgents, armed with machetes and rifles, have fought security forces.
In February, a harrowing United Nations report documented some of these crimes. It said army attacks were ‘widespread as well as systematic’. UN inspectors warned of the ‘very likely commission of crimes against humanity’. They recorded violent attacks on a horrifying scale.
One survivor told how soldiers ‘beat and killed’ her husband with a knife. She said: ‘Five of them took off my clothes and raped me. My eight-month-old son was crying of hunger when they were in my house because he wanted to breastfeed, so to silence him they killed him with a knife.’
Smoke billows above what is believed to be a burning village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state
The inspectors recorded many more assaults. They interviewed 101 Muslim women. More than half told that they had been raped or were the victims of other kinds of sexual violence committed by government security forces.
The UN inspectors suggested that the scale of sexual attacks may be even greater because women feel ashamed and are reluctant to speak about their experiences.
Tellingly, the UN team had to travel to nearby Bangladesh to extract these heartbreaking stories from refugees, who had fled across the border for safety.
While the violence peaked, Suu Kyi’s government did little to break the army’s near-total silencing of independent witnesses.
And how did Suu Kyi, that celebrated Nobel Prize winner who got the award for her ‘non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights’ respond to this horrifying testimony? Sad to state, with outright denial.
Her government presented photographs of one woman who, it had been said, had been raped by soldiers and headed them with a graphic containing the words: ‘FAKE RAPE.’
The Foreign Ministry also rubbished what it called ‘made up stories, blown out of proportion’.
Suu Kyi, it is said, has made no proper attempt to establish the truth about the attacks, appointing a retired general to investigate alleged army atrocities. The resulting interim report, published earlier this year, was a shameful whitewash.
Meanwhile, she tells the world — especially those on the Left who remain in thrall to her — that there’s nothing to worry about.
Earlier this year, she told BBC interviewer Fergal Keane that there was no ethnic cleansing — despite compelling evidence to the contrary — adding that the army was ‘not free to pillage and torture’.
So what is the truth?
I travelled to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine province. At first sight it is a blissful, picture-postcard city, boasting long, idyllic beaches. In the town centre I watched elegant women wearing sarongs and holding umbrellas against the sun, stroll down streets, while vendors sell their fruit outside busy tea shops.
Displaced Rohingya people shelter in makeshift houses in a mountain in Ukhia
But just a short walk away was the central mosque. Though this elegant old building was still standing, it had been gutted in an arson attack. Sittwe has been ethnically cleansed of its Muslim population.
Just five years ago, an estimated 50,000 of the city’s population of around 180,000 were members of the local Rohingya Muslim ethnic group. Today, there are fewer than 3,000 left. And they are not free to walk the streets. They are crammed into a tiny ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. Armed guards prevent visitors from entering — and will not allow the Rohingya Muslims to leave.
The Information Ministry denied me permission to enter, so I spoke by phone to ghetto inmates. They live in fear and terror and only talked on condition of anonymity.
One man told me: ‘Life used to be good to us. We had freedom of movement, we could go to school, our children had the chance to go to university. We could do business at downtown big market. No difficulties.’
It is totally different today. ‘It is like being a prisoner. There is no free movement. Not enough education, no proper healthcare. All these things are making life hopeless.’
But at least the ‘prisoners’ in the Sittwe ghetto live in their homes. The vast majority of fellow Muslims have been driven from their homes by armed mobs and now live in improvised camps.
Displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar carry their belongings as they flee violence, near Ukhia
The situation of these Rohingya is shocking. Before the 2015 elections, they were stripped of the right to vote, while punitive new laws even target their right to have children.
Most sinister is the Population Control Healthcare Bill, approved by the country’s parliament two years ago. This legislates that women in some parts of Burma must wait three years before having another child. There’s little doubt this cruel law is aimed at stalling population growth among Rohingyas.
Many Buddhists say the Rohingya have no right to live in the country because they are actually Bengali migrants who entered during British rule, meaning their real home should be Bangladesh.
However, this is disputed by scholars, who say they lived here before the British arrived. The Rohingya do look different and have a different language, customs and, of course, religion to the rest of the country. This makes them easier to pick on at a time of acute social and economic tension.
Measures such as the Population Control Healthcare Bill have led some observers to talk of genocide.
Two years ago, a Yale University report found evidence ‘that genocidal acts have been committed against Rohingya’.
Most analysts dismiss such talk. But there’s no question that the Muslims in western Myanmar live in conditions that recall the very worst of South African apartheid.
It cannot be stated too strongly that Aung San Suu Kyi has held power in Myanmar for barely a year and cannot be blamed for the desperate plight already facing the Rohingya before she came to power.
Trouble dates back to 2012 when — after a Muslim was blamed for the rape of a Buddhist woman — armed mobs surged through Sittwe and nearby villages, driving the Rohingya from their homes, killing hundreds and forcing survivors to live in camps. The charge against Suu Kyi is that she has not done enough to remedy the situation. And that she then stood by when a fresh wave of violence started last October.
These assaults began after an armed gang of allegedly Rohingya insurgents attacked guards along the Myanmar border with Bangladesh, killing nine police.
The military response was beyond all proportion, with more than 90,000 Muslims driven from their homes in a murderous campaign of rape and intimidation.
To be fair to Suu Kyi, she has no control of the military. Furthermore, she faces a desperately hard task bringing this deeply backward former British colony out of dictatorship and into democracy.
Myanmar is racked with problems of which the plight of the Rohingya is only one. Nevertheless, her denials that the army has committed abuses makes her complicit in the tragedy.
Increasingly, she is criticised by global figures. Pope Francis recently condemned ‘the persecution of our Rohingya brothers’ and called on ‘men and women of good faith to help them and ensure their full rights’.
Her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, 20, has called on Suu Kyi to condemn the ‘tragic and shameful’ treatment of the Myanmar’s Rohingya.
Life is getting harder here for the Rohingya and I was met with constant bureaucratic obstruction in my attempts to access the camps.
Eventually, I was able to get inside one camp. Conditions were not too bad.
The inhabitants had enough food to eat and their accommodation — dimly lit, makeshift huts — was bearable, though leaving them dangerously vulnerable to the cyclones that frequently roar in from the sea (most of the camps are on the coast). Yet it was the hopelessness that hit me hardest. There were no jobs. There were no prospects for young people, and nothing for them to do.
It dawned on me that so many of the Rohingya have, in effect, been confined to closely guarded and monitored prison camps.
The Rohingya people were loyal allies of Britain in World War II. Now they face their darkest hour. Britain and other nations must do more to help one of the most forsaken peoples of the world
All the inhabitants had been there since being driven from their homes five years ago. It’s possible they will be resettled somewhere else in the future, but there is no prospect they will ever return home.
One man, who used to be a fisherman, told me: ‘I am in prison.’ He described how his every move was monitored by the police.
He told me that he and his fellow Rohingya had supported Suu Kyi when she stood for election in 2015. He said: ‘We have been stripped of the vote. But if I could have voted, I would have voted for her. I prayed for the lady to win the 2015 election. She got a Nobel Peace Prize.’
Now he is heartbroken. ‘She is the plaything of the army government. If the army says jump, she jumps. She will not use any words against the army.’
Britain continues to support Suu Kyi, as her recent reception at Buckingham Palace shows.
What a hideous betrayal of all we profess to stand for and believe.
During World War II, British forces fought one of our most desperate battles of the conflict in Burma, against the Japanese.
Many Burmese — including Suu Kyi’s war hero father — fought us alongside the Japanese. But not the Rohingya Muslims, who, for the most part, remained loyal to Britain. In view of this, I asked if there were any survivors from that heroic episode.
I was taken by my guides along narrow walkways to a small, dark hut, where I was introduced to a 93-year-old man with a straggly, white beard. He was almost completely blind with deep cataracts.
He told me how he had been a baggage carrier for British soldiers. ‘We gave the British food. We brought them goats and chickens. I helped the British build roads and bridges.’ After the war, he said, he had made a living as a farmer — until five years ago when he was driven from his home by violent mobs. ‘I lost my crops. My buffalo. Everything.’
Tears rolling down his cheeks, he told me: ‘My life is already destroyed. But I implore you, please rescue our new generation. This government is killing our new generation.’
Several months ago, at the height of the latest violence against the Rohingya, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Myanmar.
At the time, he did not say a single word of public criticism against the atrocities being carried out by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya, though he may have done so in private, and has in recent days warned that their treatment is ‘besmirching’ the country’s reputation.
The Rohingya people were loyal allies of Britain in World War II. Now they face their darkest hour. Britain and other nations must do more to help one of the most forsaken peoples of the world.
- Additional reporting: Emanuel Stoakes.