External Affairs

Suffering Has a Name

Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis at home is starkly duplicitous and false.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Credit: Reuters/Edgar Su/File Photo

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Credit: Reuters/Edgar Su/File Photo

Suffering is universal and part of the human condition and life. In history however, suffering is quite specific. Suffering carries a name, sometimes of an individual and often of a community. Suffering has a face, or faces. Today we are witnessing the suffering of isolated groups of individuals who are victims of terror attacks. But we are also witnessing the deep violence against communities that are targeted in the name of racist and religious nationalism. These are forms of historical violence that do not fall within the general idea of universal suffering. It includes the collective plight of people, of refugees and minorities, who face majoritarian violence. These instances are often accompanied by the apathy of the state or its direct or tacit encouragement. These sufferers have a name. These names belong to people who suffer the logic of territoriality that dogs the spirit of history and the nation’s paranoia.

Rohingya is such a name. That is why Aung San Suu Kyi’s not mentioning “Rohingya” in her address to the nation, where she refers to the specific crisis at home in general terms, appears odd and deliberate. As if the word is taboo, the name too hard to utter. Rohingya is just not the name that designates a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, but a minority that is suffering majoritarian violence. The word is not simply a political category, but resonates with an ethical appeal in relation to their specific condition. It is a condition born out of historical prejudice and political malice. Meanwhile, the Rohingya crisis has spilled over, posing questions for other nations to rehabilitate political refugees. The UN raised eyebrows over India’s handling of the crisis, as the Narendra Modi government told the Supreme Court that the Rohingya people posed a threat to national security. The paranoia of security has become a legitimate logic used by the state to absolve itself of ethical responsibilities. Yet Suu Kyi, despite facing worldwide condemnation and petitions to strip her off the Nobel Peace Prize, maintained a disturbingly long silence.


Also read: Finding Hope for the Rohingya in Unexpected Places


Suu Kyi’s address comes very late. To be late is a problem, for it betrays reluctance and perhaps even refusal to address the nature of crime. This dubious style of responding late to serious crimes where the victim isn’t named is currently being pursued even by the political regime in India. Suu Kyi’s response to the crisis at home is starkly duplicitous and false. She said, “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” That is a misleading statement, for she does not need to answer a universal problem but the problem of a minority. To say “all human rights violations” is to not mention the one violation which alone is everything that she has to respond to. That one is the singular universal. The universal cannot be reduced to the concrete one. It is a trick of language, to subsume the one within the universal and erase it. Erase its name. The politics of the universal is the politics of not naming (the one).

Universal suffering is not political. Only particular people in historical time have suffered violence. To take their names, mention their suffering in relation to their perpetrators, is our ethical and historical task. Not to name the one, in this sense, shows a lack of responsibility. All responsibility is ethical and for that reason, particular. No one is (held) responsible for universal suffering. The language of affectation is as much an ethical sensibility. The language of mourning is also meant for the one, for that one name who suffers, not for everyone, for any universal notion of the sufferer. To mourn is always to mourn for the other, for that one, bereaved other, who is the victim of fate or history. This is what the French ethical thinker, Emanuel Levinas, calls the “inter-human”, which takes cognisance not of the universal, but the particular other, the neighbour, who needs help, care or justice.

In her most recent interview to ANI, Suu Kyi reiterated the problem, pointing to the “controversies with regard to the term used to describe the Muslims of the Rakhine.” Her explanation reveals her position vis-à-vis this politics of naming: “There are those who want to call them as Rohingyas or who want to refer the Muslims there as Rohingyas. And the Rakhines will not use any term except Bengalis, meaning to say that they are not ethnic Rakhines. And I think that instead of using emotive terms, this term has become emotive, and highly charged. It’s better to call them as Muslims which is a description that nobody can deny.” The politics of naming is contextual.

In India, the term ‘Muslim’ is enough to name a minority being targeted by Hindu vigilante groups in the pretext of violating majoritarian sentiments. The political establishment in turn won’t name the Muslim in the pretext of not adding communal colour to crimes that are communal in nature. In Suu Kyi’s case, ‘Muslim’ is more politically suitable, for the term ‘Rohingya’ designates an etymology and history that establishes their relationship with the region, gives it pre-colonial status and disturbs the territorial idea of a nation-state. It is a term that contests the unitary claims of the “ethnic Rakhines” to be the sole, legitimate inhabitants of Myanmar. Suu Kyi is clearly siding with the sentiments of the ethnic Rakhines by shying away from using the word Rohingya.

Nasir Ahmed cries as he holds his son after he was killed when a boat with fleeing Rohingya capsized off the coast of Bangladesh, in Teknaf, Bangladesh. Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Nasir Ahmed cries as he holds his son after he was killed when a boat with fleeing Rohingya capsized off the coast of Bangladesh, in Teknaf, Bangladesh. Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

No wonder that Suu Kyi does not want to name the name Rohingya. To mourn or take responsibility were not her intention from the beginning. To name that minority will mean two things, she probably wants to avoid: First, take responsibility for the condition of what that name, of what people who bear that name, faces today in her country; and second, to accept the suffering specific to that one community, of the minority she can’t wish away in the name of a fantasy she may call her nation. A nation where a minority cannot exist is a majoritarian fantasy. It is the minority that presents the problem of the one, for by naming her the majority’s claim is divided into two, and the majority wants absolute claims. Majoritarian politics would always want to deny the one its place, so that the majority remains the only, incontestable one.

The difference between Mahatma Gandhi and Suu Kyi is that Gandhi recognised the twoness between Hindus and Muslims. Remember Gandhi invoking the simile of “two brothers” in Hind Swaraj for the Hindu-Muslim relationship. In a historically unique and perhaps unparalleled gesture, Gandhi placed the Muslim demand before (prior to) the Hindu. When Gandhi said, “unity cannot be reached without justice between communities”, his placing the question of justice prior to unity is precisely to endorse the minority’s claim first. There is no need for justice if the majority is the sole, legitimate claimant to political power. It is the minority that introduces the question, the necessity, of justice in a nation-state in the first place.


Also read: Rohingya Exodus the Fastest, Most Concentrated Refugee Movement in Asia Since 1971


In contrast, without recognising the minority, Suu Kyi said, “We feel deeply for the suffering of all the people caught up in the conflict.” It may easily mean both victims and perpetrators, as both are “caught up” in the “conflict”. It is a gross violation of ethical sensibility and intention. This political language that speaks for “all” deliberately hides the suffering of the one. In the ANI interview, Suu Kyi said, “We have to be fair to all communities. We have always maintained this that we don’t condemn either of the communities. We condemn actions that are against the rule of law and that are against the humanitarian needs of all people. But we have never condemned communities as such.” This equalisation of violence and victimhood is certainly not fairness. It is unfair to the beleaguered, outnumbered, persecuted people, who are at the receiving end of what the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Again you find the politics of language where the one is subsumed by an apparently fairer concern for the “all”.

Apart from being a late response, Suu Kyi’s statements are strategically silent on meaningful clarification and intent. In the light of her language, it is difficult to accept her claim that her “true feelings are very very simple”. Both language and silence fall short of naming the violence. Silence is surely not the language of justice. Suu Kyi hasn’t spoken the language of justice yet. Something that hinders the idea of justice holds back her tongue. Call it the silence of prejudice or the prejudice of silence.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.