Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, is facing a backlash from fellow pro-democracy campaigners who are dismayed at her refusal to speak out against abuses being committed by her country’s military.
Aung San Suu Kyi, third from right, arrives at Myanmar Lower House to attend a regular session of Parliament Photo: AP
Activists who supported the world famous symbol of human rights through her years of imprisonment and isolation accuse her of staying silent on the most pressing human rights issue in Burma today – the treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless group identified by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities anywhere.
Critics contend that she has consistently dodged the subject throughout eight weeks of strife in Rakhine state in western Burma, where hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced from their homes.
There have been consistent reports of army beatings, acts of intimidation and extra judicial killings of the Rohingya, who are Muslim.
Her refusal to criticise President Thein Sein, a former military general, for endorsing policies that could be seen as recommending ethnic cleansing have caused particular consternation.
Thin Sein said the 800,000 Rohingya population should be put in camps and sent across the border to Bangladesh.
“It’s disappointing, she is in a difficult position, but people have been disappointed she hasn’t been more outspoken,” said Anna Roberts, executive director of the Burma Campaign UK.
“She passed up opportunities to say good things on this,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“This was all blowing up when she was travelling in Europe and she didn’t confront it,” he added, referring to her recent foreign tour when the Nobel laureate was feted in London, Dublin, Paris and Oslo.
The sweeping and rapid reforms that have seen Ms Suu Kyi take a seat in parliament have also eased censorship laws, exposing deep levels of resentment towards the Rohingya and Muslims among the majority Buddhist ethnic Burmese population.
Some activists said it was unclear if the Nobel Peace Laureate shared commonly held prejudices towards the dark-skinned minority from the subcontinent, who first migrated from Bengal centuries ago.
“One has to be suspicious or concerned about what her views are,” said Mr Adams. “It’s very hard to know what she thinks.”
In her first parliamentary speech this week Ms Suu Kyi cited the importance of protecting minority rights, but that was widely regarded as referring to larger Buddhist groups such as the Karen and Shan.
Maung Zarni, a Burmese academic who was on a panel with her at the London School of Economics in June, said: “She has been very non-committal on the issue of the Rohingya.”
Other victims of Burma’s military regime who had been released from prison only to show a “shocking” level of racial prejudice against Muslims, he said.
“Pro-democracy crowds are also cut from the same racist ideological fabric” as the military-dominated government, he added. There have been reports that Buddhist monks in Rakhine have distributed pamphlets urging boycotts of Muslim traders and shops.
When asked about the Rohingya issue, Ms Suu Kyi has vaguely referred to the need for the “rule of law”, or for a clear immigration law, which critics say suggests she sees the Muslim group as immigrants rather than citizens. The Rohingya have never been granted Burmese citizenship and a 1982 law excluded from the list of officially-recognised minorities.
As Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy look ahead to elections in 2015, analysts have said that expressing support for the Muslim minority would be politically calamitous.
Mr Adams and others disagree. “This is an unequivocal issue, it’s something where clarity is needed. She is such an icon, she could bring a lot of public opinion with her if she went after the issue,” he said.
- Rohingya families risk their lives to escape persecution in Myanmar | DW
- Rohingyas recount terror of Burma clashes | BBC News
- Growing Unease In Indonesia Over Plight of Rohingya | Jakarta Globe
- Thai Students: Stop Rohingya massacre | Bangkok Post
- Amnesty International: Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingyas being targeted as violence continues in west | Vancouver Sun
- Pakistan Taliban threaten Burma over Rohingya | Hindustan Times
- Bangladesh keeps door firmly shut on Rohingya | DW
My father’s been liaising with (Burmese expat) Rohingya organisation members, here in the UK, but getting aid to the affected, is proving difficult - with the Monks and various other Burmese institutions refusing to co-operate in aiding the Rohingya people.
At a meeting which Suu Kyi attended here in England, one of the aides working with my dad for the charity challenged her on the issue. She apparently came across rather genuinely upset, after they’d briefly detailed the plight, but then came out with a similarly non-committal and vague answer: talking about the rule of law and needing clarity on immigration laws etc.
Given the widespread hatred and distrust Burmese society apparently feels towards the Rohingya, it’s easy to see how it would indeed be “politically calamitous” for her to come out in support of the discriminated and helpless minority… You would have expected better from her, however, than to remain silent for political reasons.
It’s saddening to see what’s going on, since Myanmar had been making such positive steps in the months prior; when we were all rooting for her. This article which looks at the historical background of the discrimination, says that senior members of her own party have abetted the anti-Rohingya sentiment too - having “jumped on the bandwagon to speak out against the Rohingyas”. She needs to make herself clear on the issue.
With the tensions and discrimination ongoing in Burma, and with neighbour Bangladesh’s deplorable, stubborn and disgusting stance on the matter - with their refusal to help - things aren’t looking good for the Rohingya.