There is no question that Rakhine State, one of the poorest in Myanmar, is a complex tinderbox of sectarian resentments that requires the most cautious of political approaches. But these simply cannot be based on a perpetuation of the systematic persecution and marginalization of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s social and political life. They certainly cannot be based on denying the Rohingya even their name.
In the end, the reason Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t want the Americans to say “Rohingya” doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a woman whose name has been synonymous with human rights for a generation, a woman who showed unflinching courage in the face of despotism, has continued an utterly unacceptable policy of the military rulers she succeeded.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would be wise to reconsider her stance immediately. Her halo has been a central factor in Myanmar’s reacceptance into the world community after decades of ostracism, but already there are calls by human rights groups in the United States for President Obama to renew sanctions against the country before they expire on May 20.
This isn’t some new failure either. But isn’t there an object lesson here about how western liberals see overseas dissenters? Aung San Suu Kyi did an outstanding job not only presenting herself as a martyr to a diabolical military dictatorship, which she certainly was, but as a symbol of international human and political rights. But the last part of that can get really problematic when such a leader actually takes power and either feels the need to compromise on the rights of others for pragmatic reasons or actually does not believe that minorities should be equal in her nation. As the Times says, it doesn’t really matter because she’s failing here. On the other hand, western liberals creating images of dissidents as saints should also be avoided. These people are humans, not symbols, and they have human frailties that may include nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism. That’s as true of Aung San Suu Kyi as anyone else.