A SUHAKAM Human Rights Award recipient’s stance on the Rohingya march in Kuala Lumpur brings us back to the fundamentals of universal human rights.
Readers of The Malay Mail Online’s opinion section will no doubt be familiar with Boo Su-Lyn, a SUHAKAM Human Rights Award recipient, and a talented and opinionated writer. On a personal level, I always rated her pieces quite highly, and she was an inspiration for youth activists in Malaysia championing human and civil rights.
Which made her post on Merdeka Day all the worse.
On the 30th of August, hundreds of Rohingya marched in Kuala Lumpur to protest against the latest bout of violence perpetrated upon their kin in Myanmar. Described by the UN as “the most friendless people in the world”, news outlets have reported that they are being turned away at the Bangladeshi border, stuck in limbo between a country that is actively persecuting them and another that wants nothing to do with them.
The protest march delivered a memorandum to a representative of the Myanmar Embassy at Jalan Ampang Hilir, but was marred by allegations of unruly behaviour. Over a hundred protesters were arrested for illegal assembly and disruption of traffic, and another 20 were detained for immigration offences.
Later that day, Ms. Su-Lyn slammed the march in a post on Facebook, stating “If they’ve already come here for refuge and jobs, they shouldn’t be causing trouble and traffic jams.” Local supporters and netizens hit back, many outraged that a “champion” of human rights could be so hypocritical in her views. In turn she doubled down in a comment the next day; already, news organisations have picked up on her statements, and the worst is likely yet to come. Ms. Su-Lyn, it seems, is likely going to have a long weekend ahead of her.
Et tu, Su-Lyn?
Ms. Su-Lyn’s words would have been roundly condemned even if she had merely been a random commenter on a public post making the rounds on social media. Given her background, however, they are damning indictments of her character, and worse still, they are a self-inflicted wound to human rights efforts in Malaysia. Ironically, Ms. Su-Lyn’s open disdain for the plight of the Rohingya is in stark contrast with yet another human rights icon’s silence on the matter: 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the Iron Lady of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The State Counsellor of Myanmar, from living under house arrest to de facto head of government, has been the polar opposite of unequivocal in denouncing the persecution of Rohingyan Muslims in her country. Where previously political analysts and human rights advocates rationalised her silence on the matter as an effort to not antagonise the all-powerful military, many have now become disillusioned with her, going so far as to call for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. Her inaction as well as her tacit complicity by refusing to condemn the atrocities perpetrated given her personal background of persecution have stained her credibility permanently.
Ms. Su-Lyn and Mrs. Suu Kyi are, to borrow a phrase from the Brexit referendum, trying to have their cake and eat it too. As lawyer Eric Paulsen noted on Twitter in response to Ms. Su-Lyn’s comments, human rights are universal, and civil liberties apply to both citizens and foreigners alike. By openly discriminating against a group of people, Ms. Su-Lyn has opened the door to the implication that civil rights need not apply equally and fairly to all people. Today, it is the Rohingya – tomorrow, who will it be?
The problem with Ms. Su-Lyn’s stance is that it implies that human and civil rights exist on a spectrum, and we are free to pick and choose which apply to us when we see fit. Nothing could be further from the truth; our fight is for these rights to apply equally to all, regardless of whether they are foreigners or not. Any less would be to accept that universal human rights simply do not matter, and by extension, that some people matter less than others.
End of the Line
In all honesty, I cannot say that I am upset by Ms. Su-Lyn’s comments. Shocked, certainly; sad, without a doubt – but I am not angry. She has a right to an opinion, and she has expressed hers – it is only disappointing that someone who claimed to espouse the ideals that myself and others held close to our hearts has revealed she is not who we thought she was.
I take heart, however, from the response to her statements and from other figures that I hold in high regard. It is clear many of them disagree strongly, and their comments only reinforce my belief that a majority of people recognise that we cannot compromise in our fight to achieve universal human rights here in Malaysia.
The struggle is greater than any single person, and those who continue to soldier on will do so irrespective of Ms. Su-Lyn’s views. After all, in the words of Ms. Su-Lyn herself during her SUHAKAM Award acceptance speech: “We should be strengthening the protection of human rights and civil liberties, like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly…[A]s we celebrate people who fight for human rights today, we remember that the struggle to uphold our rights is a continuous one…”
The fight continues – and we fight for everyone, Rohingya or otherwise.