By Douglas Gibson
Some eleven years ago, South Africa attracted international anger and repudiation when it declined to discuss the Myanmar (Burma) situation in the Security Council of the United Nations. South Africa maintained that Myanmar was not a danger to world or regional peace and that it should rather be discussed at the Human Rights Council.
At the time, Nobel Prize-winner and international democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for many years and the military seemed set for many more years of authoritarian dictatorship. As the DA spokesperson on Foreign Affairs in the South African Parliament I accused the ANC government of having lost its moral compass. While legalistically our country might have had a point, the politics of the situation demanded that we should be on the side of human rights and democratic reform – not on the side that suited the generals in Myanmar.
To everyone’s surprise, including my own, in July 2007 I was appointed as South Africa’s ambassador to Thailand and non-resident ambassador to Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Asked at the time how I could possibly justify the SA policy on Myanmar I pointed to a very recent speech by the deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, Sue van der Merwe, which went out of its way to stress South Africa’s interest in and support for human rights in Myanmar. I was able to suggest that my appointment was also a signal that South Africa had altered its policy in line with the overwhelming international sentiment.
Interestingly enough, during one of my lengthy visits to Aung San Suu Kyi in her lakeside home in Yangon two years later, she told me that one of the lowest moments of her decades in isolation was when “South Africa let us down at the United Nations.”
It is ironic that all these years later, South Africa again found itself isolated internationally on a burning human rights issue: the position of the Rohingya in Myanmar. On a vote at the United Nations supported by 142 countries, our country chose to abstain. According to an SABC report, written by Nic Dawes and Dewa Mavhinga, “… (the) Ramaphosa government missed its chance to stand up for the victims of an ethnic cleansing campaign that has caught the world’s attention for its callous brutality.
The Rohingya in Myanmar have suffered what a United Nations (UN) created fact-finding mission found to be persecution that ‘may also amount to the crime of apartheid.’ ” Days later, thankfully, our minister of International Relations instructed the UN delegation to reverse this vote.
To those who idolised Aung San Suu Kyi, all of this is extremely painful. When she and her party swept to an election victory, they assumed office, but not power in the full democratic sense. The Constitution of Myanmar, imposed by the military, reserved unelected parliamentary seats for soldiers, kept power to dissolve parliament in military hands and prevented Daw Suu (as she is known) from assuming office as president because her late husband was British.
There was such overwhelming support for her and such a powerful urge to make progress after many decades of military rule that her decision to accept office in government and make the best of the opportunity was completely understandable.
Sadly, she seems to have fallen prey to the Zimbabwe/ Tsvangirai fate: Morgan Tsvangirai, who had won the election, was persuaded by President Thabo Mbeki to serve as Prime Minister under President Mugabe. The Zimbabwean army refused to salute Tsvangirai. In office but not in power.
There is no doubt, however, that the population is in a far, far better position with her in office. The whole atmosphere in Myanmar, which I last visited a couple of years ago, is vastly different and some considerable progress, economically and democratically has taken place because of her and her party. Suu Kyi has put many things right but ends up carrying the blame for things that are not of her doing.
I had the privilege of spending hours with her when she was a figure of international stature, a witness for freedom, and a self-sacrificing example for the world; international condemnation of her pains me.
Suu Kyi has missed several opportunities to speak publicly about the Rohingya issue, including at the UN General Assembly last September. She later claimed the crisis was being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation” – but then also said she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict. Myanmar, she said, was “committed to a sustainable solution… for all communities in this state.”
The plight of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees attracts increasing attention; I cannot believe that she is unmoved by their situation. Myanmar is very largely a Buddhist nation and no love is lost between the Buddhists and the minority Muslims but it cannot be beyond the government she heads to move the military to assist in ending the humanitarian crisis. She needs to speak out, making it clear to the world that she is neither responsible for the Rohingya crisis nor in support of the continuance of the crisis. It simply cannot be that a democracy icon could become an unfeeling politician, unmoved by a huge humanitarian crisis.
I would urge the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Lindiwe Sisulu, to instruct our excellent and experienced ambassador, Geoff Doidge, to make contact with Suu Kyi and advise her that South Africa, a very new democracy, and with all due modesty, offers its help in attempting as a sincere and reliable friend to bridge the gap and mediate in the Rohingya crisis.
This is exactly the offer I made on behalf of South Africa a decade ago when Myanmar looked like a hopeless case and when Suu Kyi was a prisoner of conscience.
Douglas Gibson is a former South African opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand and Myanmar.