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Tarnished image

15 September 2017


On the run: Rohingya Muslim refugees taking showers at a temporary makeshift shelter after crossing over from Myanmar into Bangladesh

On the run: Rohingya Muslim refugees taking showers at a temporary makeshift shelter after crossing over from Myanmar into Bangladesh

WHAT’s Gone Wrong in Myanmar? (World Service, Friday). An appropriate subtitle might be And has the lady turned? The mass migration of Rohingyas from Rakhine State, in Myanmar, over the border to Bangladesh appears to be destroying the reputation of its de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

She will not be the first peace-prizewinner to fall from grace; but there is something particularly depressing about this tale of a saint tarnished by realpolitik.

At the time of writing this column, the Rohingya militants have called a ceasefire; it remains to be seen whether this cessation of violence will be reciprocated by the military, or by the armed Buddhist groups who have reportedly been attacking Rohingya communities. Whatever the case, there are now going on for 200,000 who have crossed into Bangladesh, most without expectation of return.

Here was a case study from which any international-relations major would benefit. In one corner, we had the United States diplomat Priscilla Clapp, who took the more gradualist approach: Suu Kyi must stay in place, exerting her benign influence on the military regime from within. Then there was a biographer of Suu Kyi, Peter Popham, lamenting the position she was boxed into, and recommending that she bail out.

Phil Robertson, from Human Rights Watch, was understandably the most hardline: Suu Kyi has a responsibility not only to speak out, but to engage fully with the UN Human Rights Council.

The unanswered question at the heart of this is to what extent Suu Kyi is herself minded to sympathise with the Rohingyas. We heard an interview from 2013 with the BBC in which she was deafeningly evasive when asked about the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar.

Francis Wade, the fourth panellist in this programme, said that the Rohingyas were never part of Suu Kyi’s vision of an equal, pluralist country. Suu Kyi’s protestations that the outside world cannot understand the complexity of the situation may be true, but where have we heard such arguments before?

From one tainted icon to another. The Battle for Henry David Thoreau (Radio 3, Sunday) marked the 200th birthday of the American philosopher and naturalist whose writings have inspired generations of American environmentalists and libertarians. The trouble is that, as Susan Marling’s Sunday Feature pointed out, those two interests rarely interlock in contemporary Western society.

The environmental lobby, who delight in Thoreau’s vision of the simple life, at one with nature, would nevertheless shudder at his most oft-quoted aphorism: “That government is best, which governs least.”

There were not many people in Marling’s piece willing to defend Thoreau’s often finger-wagging, often high-minded tone. But it was pleasing to hear that even a man of his self-importance was able to admit that, of the 900 books in his library, at least 700 have been written by himself.

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