On Moral Leadership

The story may be apocryphal — I’ve read several versions of it — but it’s worth retelling: a mother once brought her young son to Mahatma Gandhi and implored, “Please,” she said, “please tell my son to stop eating sugar. It’s destroying his health.”

The Mahatma then told the mother, “Come back in a month.”

After a month, mother and boy came back. The Mahatma clasped the boy’s hand, looked him in the eye and told him in a clear and urgent voice, “You must never eat sugar again, my child. It’s not good for you.”

When the mother asked the Mahatma why they had to wait for one month for such a simple act of admonition, he explained, “Oh, last month I was still eating sugar myself.”

This may be of the same stuff as the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree, but I couldn’t help recalling it when I read that Myanmar’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi would not use “moral leadership” to address an issue that could bring to a sorry end her country’s march to democracy and national reconciliation.

There’s bloody violence raging today in Myanmar, in the western state of Rakhine, between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya. Some 90 people were killed and 30,000 were left homeless last month alone.

The conflict has deep historical roots: most of the Rohingya have been in the state for generations, but most Burmese regard them as illegal immigrants, invaders even. There’s also the element of racism: the Rohingya, being related to the Bangladeshi, look different from the other Burmese ethnic groups.

The Rohingya are reputedly the most persecuted people in the world, but in recent times they have fought back. It’s an unequal fight. Further complicating the situation is the little known fact that not all Myanmar Muslims are Rohingya. Muslims are all over the country, and violence has also been inflicted on many of them.

Early last week Suu Kyi’s international admirers called on her to speak loud and clear against the violence being committed in Rakhine state. But she wouldn’t. “I am urging tolerance,” she said, “but I do not think one should use one’s moral leadership if you want to call it that to promote a particular cause without really looking at the sources of the problem.”

But she doesn’t have to promote an ethnic cause. She needs only make a strong call for a stop to the killing and the burning of houses — regardless of who is doing it.

Later she did join lawmakers from ethnic minority parties in calling for the dispatch of more troops to restore peace and order in violence-torn Rakhine. But her international supporters expect more. They want her to tell the perpetrators in the strongest terms to stop the killing, and not just join a chorus appealing to the military authorities to take action.

Maybe, action will be taken. Newly re-elected US President Barack Obama will be visiting Myanmar next week. He will see some very real reforms. The Myanmar government will probably also do something to show that reform has extended as far as Rakhine state. That will earn Myanmar additional brownie points. But that has nothing to do with moral leadership.

Perhaps, as she often implies, she is really ignorant of the situation in Rakhine. How can she, indeed, speak against things she does not know? Maybe she needs time to get out of her sweet ignorance, in the same way that her idol and model Mahatma Gandhi needed a month (three weeks in one other version of the story) to get out of the sugar-eating habit before he could speak against it.

If and when she gets out of her sweet zone, she will find her voice.

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