08/09/2017 11:19 SAST | Updated 08/09/2017 11:19 SAST

Desmond Tutu Breaks Silence Over Myanmar's 'Slow Genocide'

"If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep," says Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Darren Whiteside / Reuters
Protesters hold a rally near the Myanmar embassy to protest against the treatment of Rohingya Muslims, in Jakarta, Indonesia September 6, 2017.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called on Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to once again be "courageous and resilient " in light of escalating "ethnic cleansing" in the country's Rakhine region.

In an open letter to a Suu Kyi, widely recognised as Myanmar's de facto leader, Tutu pleaded for her to "intervene in the escalating crisis" and guide Myanmar's people "back towards the path of righteousness".

South Africa's revered Nobel Peace Prize winner on Thursday wrote he had broken his "vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness at the plight of the Muslim minority" in Myanmar.

Speaking out for the first time since the crisis in Rakhine began last month, Suu Kyi defended her government's handling of renewed violence in the predominantly Muslim Rakhine state. A so-called "clearance operation" in the region by Myanmar's armed forces, the Tatmadaw, is reported to have displaced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.

"It is a little unreasonable to expect us to solve this issue in 18 months," Suu Kyi said according to Reuters. "The situation in Rakhine has been such since many decades," she said. On Wednesday, she blamed "terrorists" for a "huge iceberg of misinformation" about the violence on Facebook.

The latest violence in Myanmar began last month when Rohingya militants reportedly attacked Myanmar's military in what was reportedly said to be an attempt to bring persecution by the country's security forces to a halt, the New York Times reported.

The army, nevertheless, has justified its "clearance operation" in the region, saying "terrorists" among the ethnic Muslim population allegedly attacking non-Muslims are being rooted out, according to The Guardian UK.

Meanwhile, the United Nations' secretary-general, Antonio Gutteres, on Tuesday said the clearance operations risked ethnic cleansing. Myanmar's government claims over 400 people been killed since renewed clashes broke out last month, but the UN estimates the death toll to be more than twice that number -- over 1000. Additionally, over 120 000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh.

Mushfiqul Alam / NurPhoto/ Getty Images
Rohingya people wait to cross the border into Bangladesh by boat across the naf river in Maungdaw, Mayanmar. September 7, 2017. Tens of thousands more people have crossed by boat and on foot into Bangladesh in the last two weeks as they flee violence in western Myanmar.

'The price is surely too steep'

Tutu implored Suu Kyi to "speak out for justice, human rights and unity", saying a country that "fails to protect the dignity and worth of all its people is not a free country".

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Tutu said Suu Kyi is a "dearly beloved younger sister" in his heart, referring to a photograph of her on his desk reminding him of "the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar's people".

His letter implies disappointment with how quickly Suu Kyi had gone from formerly imprisoned and celebrated political leader to a silent bystander as de facto head of state.

"Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against the members of the Rohingya. But what some have called 'ethnic cleansing' and others a 'slow genocide' has persisted -- and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering... fill us with pain and dread".

Darren Whiteside / Reuters
A placard with the picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing her of crimes against humanity, is seen at a rally near the Myanmar embassy during a protest against the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims minority by the Myanmar government, in Jakarta, Indonesia September 8, 2017.

'Potential for genocide in Myanmar'

Suu Kyi, herself a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been widely condemned for silence, perceived incredulity or dishonesty over alleged ethnic cleansing in the region, including from other Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

In September last year, an open letter signed by multiple Nobel Peace laureates, including Archbishop Tutu, warned Suu Kyi of "potential for genocide" in the region. Some critics have even called for Suu Kyi's Nobel Prize to be withdrawn.

However, a peace prize has "never been revoked and the committee does not issue condemnations or censure laureates," former committee member Gunnar Stalsett told The New York Times.

"The principle we follow is the decision is not a declaration of a saint," Stalsett said.