By: Philip Bowring

Any doubts whether the one-time Myanmar democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi is a racist as well as anti-Muslim bigot have been swept away by her recent visit to Europe. Curiously, in the interests of maintaining the fiction of ASEAN comradeship her remarks there, which should have met with outrage, went little reported and were largely ignored.

One of the few places in Europe where the Myanmar leader is now welcome is the Hungary of Victor Orban, a notorious xenophobe and authoritarian. Since as early as 2013, Suu Kyi has been arguing that Islam represents an existential threat to Myanmar’s Buddhist culture. She has consistently denied that the government has carried out ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine region, blaming the violence on a “climate of fear.”

So it perhaps was not surprising that she was warmly received and able to concur with Orban that “the greatest challenge at present for both countries and their respective regions – Southeast Asia and Europe – is migration. The two then linked this to the issue of “the continuously growing Muslim populations.”

So the problem for ASEAN is that it has too many Muslims. An interesting comment is that about 40 percent of its combined population is Muslim. Perhaps Myanmar should withdraw before being kicked out of the treaty organization.

The facts certainly do not support Aung San Suu Kyi’s xenophobia-driven claims. Far from being a source of migrants, Myanmar’s Muslim neighbour Bangladesh has been on the receiving end of 700,000 refugees driven from their homes by the genocidal policies of Myanmar which she has declined to condemn.

As for “continuously growing Muslim populations,” Bangladesh actually has a fertility rate which is below that of Myanmar and at 2.1 which will, if sustained, result in zero growth.

If any country in ASEAN suffers significantly from illegal migration it is Thailand – from a still impoverished and deeply divided Myanmar. Muslim migration into Malaysia from Indonesia and Bangladesh is mostly legal and driven by labour demand.

The Myanmar leader has shown herself not only to being anti-Muslim but racist. The problem she may share with many Burmans is that the Rohingya are dark-skinned people of south Asian appearance rather than light-skinned people with predominantly east Asian features. Not so long ago, Myanmar’s consul-general in Hong Kong actually condemned the Rohingya for their “ugly” dark skin, which he contrasted with the appearance of the majority of Myanmar people.

Non-Muslims may reasonably be concerned at the politicization of Islam in some countries, notably Malaysia and to a lesser extent in Indonesia too. It threatens harmony with the large non-Muslim minorities. But blanket statements of bigotry such as that of Aung San Suu Kyi can only encourage such trends, weakening nationalism built on plural states not religion and undermining economic development.

Nor can Buddhists claim to be exempt from extremism and politicization. In Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks have provided the focus and direction for action against non-Buddhist minorities – most recently against Muslims following the suicide bombings in Colombo.

An  Oxford graduate and a one-time United Nations official, Suu Kyi achieved near mythic status for her 21-year struggle against the Burmese junta, 15 of those years under house arrest. Now, with her odious stance against a persecuted minority, she has wasted that.

ASEAN, of course, is deeply invested in the principle of non-interference in domestic matters of neighboring states. But with members including Indonesia, with 264 million people, 87 percent of them Muslim, and Malaysia, with 61 percent of its 31 million following the same faith, unless other ASEAN countries can collectively deplore Suu Kyi’s bigotry and the stance of the Myanmar government against Muslims, the prospects for the organization and future regional harmony are dim indeed.