11/09/2017 4:51 PM AEST | Updated 11/09/2017 8:23 PM AEST

Once A Moral Leader, Aung San Suu Kyi's Silence In Myanmar Is Damning

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is silent over the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims.

AFP/Getty Images

Once held up as a beacon of moral leadership, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi's star has fallen dramatically as the leader is condemned internationally for her silence over the slaughter of Rohingya muslims by her country's military.

The Nobel-Peace Prize winner and Myanmar's de-facto leader, who spent 15 years under house arrest for defying a military junta, Suu Kyi has stood silent as the military systematically slaughter Rohingya civilians, forcing more than 290,000 to flee towards neighbouring Bangladesh.

The exodus began in late August, after Rohingya militants attacked police posts and killed 12 members of the security forces. The military, along with Buddhist vigilante groups, began burning dozens of villages in Northern Rakhine State, killing what is estimated to be hundreds of Rohingya villagers.

The rebels on Monday declared a month long truce, but the state reportedly brushed it aside.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) listens to Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi speak during a meeting in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 7, 2017.

The crisis has been described by observers as among the worst seen in the country.

"I've covered refugee crisis before and this was by far the worst thing I have ever seen," said New York Times reporter Hannah Beech, describing the exodus of civilians into Bangladesh after the military offensive.

"All I saw was this endless stream of people and an endless stream of mud and water and rain."

The Rohingya Muslim Minority

  • There are 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar, and they have beens described by the UN as the "most persecuted minority in the world";
  • Another 1.5 million form a diaspora, and many are refugees;
  • The 1982 Burmese citizenship law stripped most of the Rohingyas of their stake in citizenship;
  • The 2012 Rakhine State anti-muslim riots killed more than 160 and left 100,000 displaced riots;
  • In October 2016, the Myanmar military began cracking down on Rohingya again after insurgents attacked a border outpost. Violence renewed on August 25, 2017.

The United Nations has appealed for aid to deal with the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

But with the wave of hungry and traumatised refugees "showing no signs of stopping," they are overwhelming agencies in the Cox's Bazar region. The agencies are already helping hundreds of thousands displaced by previous conflicts in Rakhine state, the U.N. told Reuters on Sunday.

While hundreds are believed to have been killed, Suu Kyi -- who does not control the military -- has kept damningly silent as her one-time allies plead with her to speak out.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Rohingya refugees walk on a muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh September 8, 2017.

Her silence can be viewed as a pragmatic trade-off to give her political cover.

In a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month, she reportedly said the crisis was being distorted by a "huge iceberg of misinformation."

In April Suu Kyi reportedly told the BBC the phrase "ethnic cleansing" was "too strong" a term to describe the situation in Rakhine.

"I don't think there is ethnic cleansing going on," she said. "I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening."

"I think there is a lot of hostility there - it is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are co-operating with the authorities."

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Rohingya refugee children are stopped by volunteers as they jostle to receive food distributed by local organizations in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, September 9, 2017.

Australia has called for restraint from Myanmar authorities, and for them to protect civilians and allow for unfettered access for humanitarian workers following reports all UN aid to northern Rakhine has been stopped.

The Australian Greens have written to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to take 20,000 Rohingya refugees.

In the midst of this, an online petition calling for Suu Kyi's 1991 Nobel Peace-price to be revoked has attracted more than 400,000 signatures.

Suu Kyi's biographer has called on her to retire, while fellowNobel laureates have called on the 72 year old to do something.

"My dear sister," wrote Bishop Desmond Tutu in a letter imploring Suu Kyi, "if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.

Handout . / Reuters
Nobel peace prize laureates, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) and South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu (L) speak at Suu Kyi's house in Yangon, February 26, 2013.

"A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

"It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain," Tutu wrote.

The International Crisis Group in a report warned the crisis risks the country's transition from military rule.

"While dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the spectre of communal violence across the country that could imperil the country's transition," it said.

Rohingya Describe Military Atrocities

Human Rights Watch
Map depicting sites where satellite sensors detected active fires between August 25 and 28, 2017.

I heard the sounds of fighting around 4 p.m. on Friday [August 25]. There was a lot of noise, worse than before. I saw them [the soldiers] myself as they entered my village. I don't know how many there were but it looked like a lot to me. I fled with the other villagers and we sheltered in the jungle overnight. When I returned to the village the next morning, after the soldiers had left, I saw about 40 to 50 villagers dead, including some children and some elderly. All had knife wounds or bullet wounds – some had both. My father was among the dead; his neck had been cut open. I was unable to do last rites for my father, I just fled.Momena, 32, fled her village of Kirgari Para on August 26 with two of her three children.

Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters
A Rohingya woman cries on the ground, as she received news, over the phone, that her husband was killed by the Myanmar Army, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh August 28, 2017.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
A car is seen near a house that was burnt down during the last days violence in Maungdaw, Myanmar August 31, 2017.

I remember army helicopters, olive green in color, flying around. I was standing on the other side of a canal, watching all this happen directly across from me. I was very close and saw it all myself. The soldiers were using guns that shoot fire, or something that explodes and sets fire. Mohammad Yunus, 26, from Sikadir Para in Tat U Chaung village tract.

Human Rights Watcj
Map locating 700 buildings destroyed in August 2017 in the Rohingya-majority village of Chein Khar Li, Burma.

Jumma prayers were just over that Friday, and the men and boys were outside the mosque when the Rakhine armed men came up to them. Rahim and others took up bamboo poles, that's all they had, but Rahim panicked when they began to shoot. He started running away. I saw them shoot him – the bullet went through his cheek, right by his cheekbone under his eye. He died from that wound.Khatija Khaton, a widow, lived in the village of Ashikha Mushi with her four children.