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Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi holds a news conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Naypyitaw on Sept. 6.   © Reuters
Politics

Tangled interests keep Myanmar's Asian partners mum on Rohingya

Japan, China, India reluctant to pile on as Suu Kyi blames fake news

YANGON -- Aung San Suu Kyi has pushed back against international criticism over how Myanmar treats its Rohingya Muslim minority -- a chorus of condemnation from which Japan, China and India have been largely absent. 

In a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, Myanmar's de facto leader suggested the crisis in Rakhine State is being perpetuated by fake news. She noted how Erdogan's own deputy prime minister was misled by graphic photos and said that was "simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities, and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists."

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek recently tweeted four images purportedly showing the plight of the Rohingya, but deleted them after their authenticity was called into question. 

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, also insisted her government is committed to making sure "all the people in our country are entitled to protection of their rights." 

123,000 refugees

Myanmar has faced a barrage of criticism over human rights violations since late August, particularly from the West and Islamic countries. On Aug. 25, armed Rohingya militants attacked multiple police posts, prompting the dispatch of more troops. This crackdown, in turn, sent many Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday estimated the number of refugees at 123,000.

The count still appears to be rising, and Western media outlets continue to direct much of their criticism at Suu Kyi's government. Likewise, predominantly Muslim countries like Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced strong concern.

In contrast, China, Japan and other Asian countries where Islam is a relative nonfactor have been less vocal. The same is true of India, where Muslims constitute a large minority. These governments appear reluctant to undermine their security and economic ties with Myanmar.

Web of ties

China is Myanmar's top trade partner, followed by Thailand and Singapore. Japan provides considerable economic assistance to Myanmar through industrial and railway renewal projects -- endeavors that are bringing numerous Japanese companies into the country. 

A similar scenario played out when ethnic tensions flared in Myanmar last October, and the government was blasted for human rights violations. The following March, the U.N. Human Rights Council resolved to send an international investigative team, only to have the Myanmar government refuse them entry.

Though the U.S. and European Union urged the country to accept the investigation, Tokyo distanced itself. It preferred to wait and watch the Myanmar government's own efforts to resolve the issue, which has deep historical and cultural roots. China took a similar position at a Human Rights Council conference, saying the issue concerned "internal affairs which could not be overcome overnight."

China also reportedly opposed international intervention when the U.K. proposed a U.N. meeting on the Rohingya issue after the incident last month.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first foreign head of state to meet with Suu Kyi after the August escalation of violence, made it clear his government's priority is to maintain bilateral ties. The two leaders agreed on a maritime cooperation deal centered on port development in Sittwe, Rakhine State, as well as security. Modi reserved his criticism for Rohingya radicals' violence against the security forces.

As the global chorus of condemnation grows, however, Myanmar's Asian partners may find it more difficult to keep quiet. 

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