“A politician thinks of the next elections. A statesman thinks of the next generation.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's most famous citizen, politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, made this distinction to a packed room of journalists at the International Media Conference in Yangon Sunday afternoon.
Daw Suu, as she’s known in Myanmar/Burma, is an internationally recognized and revered stateswoman. She’s also an active politician, thinking about running in the country's 2015 elections. Suu Kyi’s continued silence on the Rohingya situation in western Myanmar begs the question: Are political priorities overshadowing her concern for the next generation?
Myanmar is one of the world’s worst countries for religious freedom. Minority faith groups are denied building permits, banned from proselytizing and pressured to convert to Theravada Buddhism, adhered to by 90 percent of the population. Myanmar's constitution provides for limited religious freedom, but individual laws and government officials actively restrict it.
Most at risk are the country’s Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. Jim Brooke, editor of The Cambodia Daily, asked Suu Kyi to address their plight.
Suu Kyi’s full response to Brooke’s question:
When you talk about violence, you have to talk about the rule of law. I’ve talked about it very often but people are not interested because it’s not interesting enough to make the headlines. To me, rule of law is an extremely interesting subject, as interesting as it is important, but I don’t think it is to many people.
When I say the first thing you have to deal with in regards to the situation in the Rakhine is rule of law, people say I’ve said nothing about the situation because for them talking about rule of law is tantamount to talking about nothing. They don’t think it’s interesting, but it’s absolutely essential. It’s basic. If we want to resolve problems that are created through acts of violence, we have to make sure that the necessary actions are taken to ensure that these acts of violence do not take place. And that’s rule of law.
In any society, when there are tensions between different communities, you have to first of all ensure security. People who are insecure will not be ready to sit down to talk to one another to sort out their problems. So if you ask me what the solution is to the problem in the Rakhine, I would say simply ‘I don’t know what the solution is completely, but one essential part of it is the establishment of the rule of law.’
Suu Kyi didn’t mention the Rohingya by name. She didn’t mention the 240 Rohingya who were killed last year in clashes with mobs comprised of the Buddhist majority. She didn’t mention that Myanmar has refused to grant citizenship to 800,000 Rohingya, 240,000 of whom have fled their homes in recent clashes.
After five or six questions from the audience, one journalist requested of Suu Kyi “one last question from your neighboring country Bangladesh.”
Suu Kyi responded sternly, noting that the moderator had already selected a CNN journalist. “No, one last question from Victoria Kennedy is what was was said, so I think that’s how we’ll go.”
UPDATE: The Bangladeshi journalist mentioned above was Shyamal Dutta, editor of Bhorer Kagoj. He confirmed my assumption that his question pertained to Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar and flooding refugee camps in bordering Bangladesh.
I’m writing from the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Yangon, Myanmar. I’ll be running a workshop Tuesday afternoon with my boss Debra Mason, former CNN producer Maria Ebrahimji and Burmese journalist Soe Myint. We’ll be discussing how to responsibly and accurately report on religious freedom and faith-based conflicts in restrictive media environments. You can read more about our workshop and view the full program here.