One language, two audiences for Suu Kyi’s first Rakhine speech

September 19, 2017 3:58 pm
People hold the Myanmar flag and placards as they listen to Suu Kyi’s speech in Yangon © AFP / AUNG Kyaw Htet

, Yangon, Myanmar, Sep 19 – Big screens broadcast Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech on the Rohingya crisis nationwide as she tried to mollify the world without riling Myanmar’s army or challenging longstanding prejudices — but few could understand her clipped English.

“We didn’t understand a single word,” said Cho Cho, who watched the leader’s first speech about the fate of the Muslim minority along with tens of thousands of others in the mainly Buddhist nation.

“But we wanted to show our support for her. After her speech finished, we clapped and came back home.”

That bedrock of support from inside the country was welcome ballast for a Nobel Peace Prize winner buffeted by global criticism for her failure to defend the Muslim Rohingya and curb a bloody army campaign that has driven 420,000 of them into Bangladesh.

But her success in allaying international alarm over the military’s alleged “ethnic cleansing” campaign was less assured.

Rights groups quickly criticised her silence about the army’s hand in the violence, which has seen hundreds of Rohingya villages burned to the ground and widespread allegations of rape and murder.

Suu Kyi vowed to hold rights violators accountable “regardless of their religion, race or political position”.

But the latter is an empty threat in a country where the civilian leader has no control over an army with a long history of scorched-earth operations, said Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson.

“This is not a rules-following military force… it never has been. These guys do what they want, when they want, with impunity,” he told AFP.

“She dodged all the really big questions.”

The speech was pitched as an appeal for global understanding of the precarious dynamics of Myanmar, where the army remains at the heart of power and decades of junta rule fuelled ethnic hatreds.

– Bear-pit of claims –

Suu Kyi chose not to dive into the bear-pit of claims and counterclaims that have swirled around the conflict.

She instead said the government needed to “listen to all of them” and “make sure that these allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action”.

That balanced approach is unlikely to satisfy rights groups, who say they have documented irrefutable evidence of the army’s atrocities.

“It was positive that she condemned human rights violations in Rakhine state but clearly she didn’t go far enough to acknowledge that this is the military behind it,” said Laura Haigh of Amnesty International.

While Suu Kyi opened the door to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees, she failed to state convincingly how all of those who have fled burning villages could return to the violence-roiled region.

The 72-year-old also noticeably avoided using the word “Rohingya” — a term that lies at the centre of the caustic ethnic divide.

It is the Muslim group’s preferred name but is virulently rejected by many Buddhists, who brand the minority as “Bengalis” — implying they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh rather than a distinct ethnic group.

The careful language of the now-fallen human rights star illustrates her dilemma: face international condemnation or risk rattling an army which has used national security as a pretext for coups.

Delivered in English without Burmese subtitles, her speech carried “a message that was for the international community”, said Sein Win of the Myanmar Journalism Institute.

But it also comforted a Burmese public on the defensive after intense global scrutiny and press coverage.

“Only a tiny number of (Myanmar people) would understand English, but they are all eager to hear her and show solidarity,” Sein Win said. “To the people, she is defending the country’s image.”



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