SITTWE, Myanmar – Few people have fought as courageously for human rights as Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy advocate who stood up to the generals here in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi should be one of the heroes of modern times. Instead, as her country imposes on the Rohingya Muslim minority an apartheid that would have made white supremacists in South Africa blush, she bites her tongue.
It seems as though she aspires to become president of Myanmar, and speaking up for a reviled minority could be fatal to her prospects. The moral giant has become a calculating politician.
Another Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Barack Obama, has visited Myanmar, is greatly admired here and cites it as a foreign policy success. I’m generally sympathetic to Obama’s foreign policy, and I understand his reluctance to deploy troops in crisis spots. But here he has been reluctant to deploy even fierce words. The United States often even avoids the word “Rohingya.”
Buddhists are renowned for peacefulness, yet, here in Myanmar, Buddhist monks have marched through the streets, demanding the expulsion of humanitarian workers who would try to save the lives of Muslims.
Obama and Suu Kyi will probably flinch as they read this, protesting that Myanmar is infinitely complicated. True. Muslims have also killed Buddhists in clashes, and no country should be judged solely based on its worst side.
Yet, this spring, the Myanmar government doubled down on its repression by essentially cutting off 1 million Rohingya from access to doctors, leaving them, in some cases, to die unattended. This is grotesque, and some scholars think it approaches genocide.
I wish Obama and Suu Kyi could have sat down with Noor Begum, an emaciated 37-year-old woman who is confined to an internment camp without doctors and over the course of three days lost her husband and her twin babies. She doesn’t really know what killed them; all she knows is that first one baby died, then her husband and, finally, the other twin.
Then there’s Asiya Khatu, 28, who smashed her finger in a door, breaking the bone so that it protruded from the finger. She needed a doctor but had to settle for the only alternative: a makeshift pharmacy run by a man named Maung Maung Tin.
I wish my local CVS pharmacy could do what he managed. He cut open the finger, pushed the bone back in place and then stitched her up with a splint of bamboo.
That’s a sign of the resilience that is as stunning a feature of the camps as the deprivation. There is suffering, death and despair, but there is also courage, generosity and ambition.
With no jobs available, Anwa Begum, a 17-year-old girl, dives in the sea for driftwood to sell as firewood. In a day she can collect wood worth about 20 cents.
Or there’s Khin Thuzar Myint, a brilliant 15-year-old girl. Because there are no formal schools for the Rohingya, she attends an informal school - where she is first in her class. She studies until midnight every evening and yearns to go to medical school and care for her people.
It’s probably an impossible dream. There are only a couple of Rohingya doctors in the region, and one of them is in prison.
What’s at stake is ultimately Myanmar itself. The army is powerful but has allowed murderous ethnic clashes and attacks on aid groups, undermining the economy and fueling ethnic nationalism on all sides. In the absence of schools, Wahhabi madrassas are popping up ominously in closed camps.
The role of Suu Kyi is particularly sad. She has lost international stature because of her unwillingness to speak truth to her people, while at home many voters object that she is insufficiently chauvinist.
“She supports Muslims,” U Pan Tha, a 66-year-old Buddhist, told me, bitterly.
His home was burned by Muslims in 2012 clashes, and he now lives in a camp for displaced people. He voted for Suu Kyi’s party in 1990, but he says he won’t in the elections next year.
“We will choose the military government over Suu Kyi,” he said.
Myanmar is advancing in many directions, and it’s exciting to see the political and economic transformation. But there’s also a poison spreading, and Western governments do no one any good by pretending not to notice.
One evening I visited a camp of Buddhists displaced by the conflict and asked a group of children what they would do if they saw a Muslim boy.
“Kill him,” said Maung Thein Soe, 13.
A couple of days later in the Rohingya encampment, I encountered a group of Muslim children. I asked them what they would do if they saw a Buddhist child.
“I will hack him,” said Muhammad Zunaike, 8.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.