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Aung San Suu Kyi's Rohingya problem

BANGKOK -- The U.S. government is maintaining pressure on Myanmar to bring an end to the regional migrant crisis in Southeast Asia. But its solution -- give citizenship to the Muslim Rohingya minority -- presents major problems for both the Naypyidaw government and increasingly, for Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy.

     In recent weeks Suu Kyi, a Nobel Laureate and former political detainee who was once praised by international human rights groups, has drawn unprecedented criticism -- notably from figures such as the Dalai Lama -- for her silence on the escalating humanitarian crisis over the plight of Myanmar's stateless Muslim Rohingya, or "Bengalis" as they are widely known in Myanmar.

     Behind her silence is the fear that anyone speaking out in defense of this much reviled minority in Myanmar will attract hostility from the majority Burman Buddihist population. Explained one Yangon based diplomat: "The bottom line is, she [Suu Kyi] is clearly more concerned with her political career than the horrific human rights situation unfolding before her eyes -- but that is to be expected from a politician rather than a human rights campaigner, and that is what she has become, or possibly always was."

     U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ann Richard gave a blunt assessment in her recent visit to Southeast Asia of the root cause of the crisis: "The Rohingya need to be treated as citizens of Burma" she told reporters in Jakarta on June 3, using the alternative name for Myanmar. "They need to have identity cards and passports that make clear they are as much citizens of Burma as anyone else."

     Earlier in the week, U.S. President Barack Obama put it even more simply, telling Myanmar that discrimination against the Rohingya must end if the country is to succeed in its transition to democracy.

     It sounds like a simple solution. But Myanmar does not recognize its estimated 1.2 million Rohingya population as part of the country's legitimate population. Officially, they are stateless people living in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where suffer persecution from state officials and even physical attack from others. More than 140,000 live in camps for the displaced and aid officials say that more than 120,000 have fled in the past few years, many on rickety boats, exploited by traffickers promising to take them to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond.

     Over the last four months alone, thousands have tried to make the perilous journey, ahead of Myanmar's monsoon season, only to be abandoned at sea by traffickers after a crackdown by Thailand. The Thai move to close off traditional smuggling routes was prompted by the discovery of so-called "prison camps" containing mass graves in the country's southern jungles. Similar discoveries have been made in Malaysia, where in late May, authorities -uncovered at least 139 graves in several dozen camps. Police said some of the prisoners were tortured.

     The Myanmar government's insistence that the Rohingya are not citizens is shared by the opposition NLD. Indeed, Suu Kyi has been conspicuously and consistently silent on the issue, fearing that even mild defense of the Rohingya might damage the party's chances in national elections in November.

International condemnation

Suu Kyi's silence prompted her fellow Nobel laureate the Dalai Lama to criticize her in late May -- offering a rebuke, albeit gently, for her failure to speak up for the Rohingya. "It's very sad," the Dalai Lama told The Australian newspaper, saying that he had asked Suu Kyi about the plight of the Rohingya at two separate meetings -- one in London and the other in the Czech Republic. He said Suu Kyi had told him the situation was '"difficult" and "complicated," but he said, he wished she could have done more.

     The Dalai Lama is not alone. Had Suu Kyi attended a recent international conference on the Rohingya crisis in Norway, she would have heard many more of her fellow Nobel laureate deliver impassioned pleas on behalf of her country's Muslim minority.

     Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called their plight "one of the most enduring human rights crises on earth." More than 100,000, he said, had been kept in displacement camps for years after Buddhist mobs burned down their homes.

     "The government of Myanmar has sought to absolve itself of responsibility for the conflict between the Rakhine and the Rohingya, projecting it as communal violence," Tutu said. "But I would be more inclined to heed the warnings of eminent scholars who say this is a deliberately false narrative to camouflage the slow genocide against the Rohingya people."

     "Genocide" is a word that U.S. financier-turned-philanthropist George Soros understands perhaps better than most. Addressing the conference by video, Soros spoke of visiting a gated ghetto inhabited by Rohingya in the middle of Sittwe, the capital of western Rakhine state, just a few months ago. The ghetto, called Aung Mingalar, triggered memories of his childhood.

'Nazi parallels'

"In 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I, too, was a Rohingya," Soros told the gathering. "Much like the Jewish ghettos set up by the Nazis in eastern Europe during World War II, Aung Mingalar has become the involuntary home of thousands of families who once had access to health care, education and employment. Now they are forced to remain segregated in a state of abject deprivation. The parallels to the Nazi genocide are alarming."

     In all, seven Nobel laureates added their voices at the Oslo conference to a growing international campaign for an end to the persecution of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi was not among them because she was not invited, according to some human rights campaigners. The organizers were aware of her silence on the issue over the years.

     "Certainly she has a long history of accomplishment standing up for democracy in Burma, but unfortunately in the case of the Rohingya, who are stateless, now fleeing Burma in the tens of thousands, she's been remarkably silent," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It's been a deafening silence, and that's called into question her commitment to human rights."

     Robertson and other critics said Suu Kyi had her eye on Myanmar's upcoming general election, due in November, which her party expects to win many seats. Defending the Rohingya would be politically damaging for the NLD and "The Lady," as Suu Kyi is known. Anti-Muslim sentiment is strong in the Buddhist-majority nation, and the Rohingya are reviled by many. An anti-Muslim campaign by the 969 Movement, spearheaded by a Buddhist monk called Ashin Wirathu, has become steadily more popular in recent months.

Playing politics

Suu Kyi has even avoided the use of the word "Rohingya," implicitly helping to erase the identity of 1.2 million people, some of whom have lived in Myanmar for generations. Through her silence, say critics, Suu Kyi has indicated keen awareness of how the Buddhist majority sees the Rohingya, and her priorities are clear.

     In an interview with the BBC following the violence against the Muslims in Rakhine and Meiktila last year, she voiced concern about what she saw as the growing influence of Muslims in the world. "I think we'll accept that there is a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great, and certainly that's a perception in many parts of the world and in our country, too," she said.

     In the same interview, Suu Kyi blamed fear of Muslims for the violence against the Rohingya, making clear that she would not alienate the country's Buddhist voters. "This is what the world needs to understand, that the fear isn't just on the side of the Muslims but on the side of the Buddhists as well. There's fear on both sides. And this is what is leading to all these troubles. And we would like the world to understand that the reaction of the Buddhists is also based on fear."

     Myanmar has a population of about 53 million, of which the vast majority is Buddhist. There are fewer than five million Muslims. The overwhelming majority of those who have died or lost their homes in communal violence in the past few years have been Muslim. It is also clear that more will take to the seas to escape persecution.

     Meanwhile, Suu Kyi remains silent. As an election strategy, it might work, say Yangon-based observers. As one Western diplomat put it, those who are disappointed with her silence -- and with the moral authority she may have lost abroad by maintaining it -- should remember that foreigners do not get to vote in November; the people of Myanmar do. The Lady knows this, too.  

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