Politicians, activists and random Instagram clowns were last week lining up to snap their very own ‘selfie’ with Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Sunday morning I saw Aung San Suu Kyi speak at a community event in Dandenong.  Following her speech there was opportunity for me to push through the crowd and snap a picture of myself with a daft look on my face standing next to one of the icons of the last half century.  Thankfully though, my life is complete without the need to do that.  Would I someday forget that I was there and need to be reminded?  Would people like me more?  Would I have more political cred?  Ultimately, my two second thrill would achieve nothing more than a few comments, likes and retweets on social media.

The rush is on for Aung San Suu Kyi selfies following her speech
The rush is on for Aung San Suu Kyi selfies following her speech

Selfies with famous people are yet another sub genre in the selfie scene, alongside belfies (Google it – and then cringe), selfie sketchup and the various forms of selfie sexting (looking right at you Snapchat!).  Snapping yourself grinning like a tool alongside someone famous is the new fashion of the half famous, wannabe famous or sadly superfluous.  To consider how pointless it really is, how many Australian secondary school students do you think still own and cherish their selfie snaps with Kevin Rudd?  I would bet a number less than the amount of women on Tony Abbott’s frontbench.  If the point of a selfie is to show the world what an amazing time you have been having, then just shut up and have it, enjoy the moment.

What to do with Aung San Suu Kyi selfies?

Leaving aside the banality of selfies, much of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s gloss has been fading lately.  For decades, the beautiful, articulate and softly spoken democracy leader has been a heroine to her people and a darling to the West.  However in recent years, since being freed from house arrest and becoming a full time politician, Suu Kyi has come under frequent criticism, for failing to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya minority.

The Muslim Rohingya have long been the whipping boys of Myanmar.  They are not alone in suffering at the hands of the military junta, with the Karen, Kachin and other sections of the population also coming under heavy persecution.  The stateless, non citizen Rohingya population also suffer the double misfortune of not only being a minority ethnicity, but a minority religion in the largely Buddhist state.  Alongside the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Afghan Hazaras, the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted and vulnerable people in the region and one of the ‘top 5’ groups of asylum seekers fleeing to Australia on boats.  This was a point bound to be raised on Suu Kyi’s visit last week and her response was sadly vague and politically non committal, stating, ‘If there’s rule of law in Australia then you must work within the framework of your law,’ before adding, ‘…justice should always be tempered by mercy.’  Appropriately, Suu Kyi went on to clarify that she does not see herself as an ‘icon’ but simply a politician.  If that is how she sees herself, then it should come to nobody’s surprise that she does not speak out for the Rohingya.

As an astute and ambitious politician, Suu Kyi has her eyes set on the prize that has eluded her for so long, the Presidency of Myanmar.  In its present form, the constitution of Myanmar prohibits Suu Kyi from running in 2015, though her National League for Democracy party is working diligently to change that.  And quite simply, there would be no extra votes for Suu Kyi if she was to speak out for the Rohingya.  Classed as illegal immigrants, the Rohingya are not allowed to vote and are held in generally low regard (at best) by the wider population of Myanmar.  If anything, Suu Kyi’s support base erode if she spoke out in defense of the Rohingya.  Therefore, ‘The Lady’ maintains her silence, which is left to be interpreted as political cunning, indifference or weakness.

How the Rohingya are perceived by many in Myanmar
How the Rohingya are perceived by many in Myanmar

The personal accounts of Rohingya refugees are as shocking and desperate as any that one can read.  The conditions of the Rohingya within Myanmar include:

  • The inability to vote, the military government denies them citizenship and claims they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh
  • Marriages must be state sanctioned and couples are only allowed two children
  • Strict restrictions on movement, which prohibits access to schools, work and health services
  • Frequent discrimination and intimidation by police, security forces and civilian gangs, including assault, lynching, rape and murder
  • Arbitrary arrest, show trials, detention and mistreatment
  • Thousands are either internally displaced, live in dire poverty or in refugee camps

 The dangers the Rohingya face are not exclusive to Rakhine state, but ever present in Bangladesh (who also reject them), Thailand and Malaysia where hundreds flee and finally, in Australia, where those who arrive by boat are sent to detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, both of which have been condemned by the UNHCR.  Those lucky few currently living in the Australian community will soon have the ‘privilege’ of applying for a temporary protection visa.

The Rohingya truly are nobody’s child.  If Aung San Suu Kyi is not able or willing to speak out specifically against the violence and state repression against Rohingya then something is seriously amiss.  If it is somehow controversial, risky, or simply politically unwise to speak out against their conditions and persecution, then there is a serious imbalance in priorities.  Suu Kyi has done all she can to avoid commenting the Rohingya issue and (rightly) lay the blame at the feet of the military junta.  However, she is a woman and leader of great influence, not only in Myanmar, but globally and could be using that influence to stand up for human rights, which is after all, one of the pillars of her NLD party.  Her silence is a disappointment to many.

Conditions for the Rohingya population in Rakhine state
Conditions for the Rohingya population in Rakhine state

Alongside other great world leaders Suu Kyi really does appear more like the politician she sees herself as.  Nelson Mandela spoke out against all forms of oppression across the world, not only in South Africa, Ghandi embraced the untouchable castes in India and Martin Luther King (and eventually Malcolm X) condemned all forms of violence and called for the inclusion and reconciliation of all Americans.  Sadly, Suu Kyi cannot rise to this level and can only be considered a politician.  Albeit, one who is widely admired, is an inspiration to millions and has suffered greatly for what is a just and worthy cause, however, not one who can rise to include all her countrymen and women.

Suu Kyi speaks to a full house at Dandenong basketball stadium
Suu Kyi speaks to a full house at Dandenong basketball stadium

At the community forum I sat with two members of the local Rohingya community.  Throughout the event Suu Kyi spoke in her native tongue, using English only once at the beginning, when thanking those who were present for supporting the cause.  Suu Kyi was well received by most of the majority ethnically Burmese crowd and often had them in raptures with her wit and charm.  However, the two men next to me and many other Muslim Rohingya faces in the crowd seldom smiled or applauded.  They were waiting for some mention of their people’s plight, their eyes desperate with hope and anticipation, willing to settle for a mere acknowledgement that they were present.  Sadly, across an hour long speech, nothing more than a call for general unity was forthcoming and the word ‘Rohingya’ was not spoken once.  The two men next to me were amongst the first to leave, disappointed to still be nobody’s child.