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Crackdown on Rohingya mars Suu Kyi's human rights image

Myanmar leader walks a tightrope between the military and overseas critics

YANGON -- Human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, including reports of mass killings by soldiers in the western state of Rakhine, are tarnishing the reputation of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

International critics fault the one-time pro-democracy activist for failing to bring the military to heel. The armed forces' crackdown, which they claim is a fight against armed extremists, has driven many Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh. The ongoing abuses threaten to erode the legitimacy of Suu Kyi's government.

The unwanted

Cox's Bazar in eastern Bangladesh, a resort town on the Bay of Bengal, has been flooded with Rohingya refugees since October. Most fled Myanmar with little more than the clothes on their backs. More than 20,000 have crossed into Bangladesh, the International Organization for Migration reported Tuesday.

The Rohingya are descendants of Muslims who migrated to Myanmar from Bangladesh and nearby areas by the 19th century. Some 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine.

In Myanmar, where Buddhists make up the vast majority of the population, the growing number of Muslims arouses alarm. In 1982, the former socialist government stripped Rohingya of their citizenship. Following the legal change, they were treated as illegal immigrants and suffered harsh discrimination.

The rape and murder of a local Buddhist woman allegedly by Rohingya in 2012 touched off rioting in Rakhine in which more than 200 people were killed. The government responded by relocating more than 100,000 Rohingya to refugee camps. Unable to endure the poor living conditions in the camps, many have fled to neighboring countries in small boats.

The human rights situation of the Rohingya is the worst it has been since the adoption of the citizenship law in 1982. Myanmar's military is suspected of carrying out a genocidal campaign, following an incident on Oct. 9 in which dozens of alleged Rohingya militants, armed with machetes, attacked a police station in northern Rakhine, killing nine officers.

Taliban connection?

On Oct. 14, the Myanmar government declared that an al-Qaida-backed terrorist group and the militant Rohingya Solidarity Organization were responsible for the attack. It launched a massive search-and-destroy operation, vowing to restore public order in Rakhine but arousing fears of Muslim militants among the public.

Information on the RSO and other alleged Rohingya militants is sketchy. The attack on the police station is widely considered to have been triggered by pent-up Rohingya frustration over discrimination. The military operation was excessive. The Rohingya were armed with no more than slings, while the Myanmar military used heavy weapons, and reportedly airstrikes against them.

More than 70 people were killed in the operation, prompting Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Those who made it across the border have been spoken to international nongovernmental organizations and others of organized killings and gang rape by the military.

A Cox's Bazar-based official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said ethnic cleansing is taking place in Rakhine. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power has called for an independent investigation.

Rights and wrongs

Myanmar flatly denies the allegations. Suu Kyi, officially the country's state counselor, called U.S. and European diplomats to Naypyitaw, the capital, and denounced the criticism as unfair and based on false information. In Singapore, on Dec. 2, Suu Kyi told news media that reports on the Rohingya issue are exaggerated.

Even as an opposition leader, Suu Kyi avoided discussing the Rohingya issue for fear of creating a backlash among Buddhists. Since forming her government at the end of March, she has been trying to smooth relations with the military under a policy of national reconciliation, as she seeks to end decades of confrontation between the military and pro-democracy groups.

Suu Kyi has backed the military's version of events in Rakhine and is staying mum on the question of refugees. She has taken the pragmatic position that stability is the government's top priority, but a local press report said Suu Kyi has been forced into compromises that have left the military calling the shots on the Rohingya issue.

Myanmar's Muslim-majority neighbors have reacted in anger. At a rally in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday attended by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, participants urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to expel Myanmar and demanded Suu Kyi return her Nobel Peace Prize.

A large anti-Myanmar rally was also held in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country by population. A plot to attack the Myanmar Embassy by a group acting in support of the Islamic State terrorist group was uncovered, leading Suu Kyi to cancel a planned visit to Indonesia in December.

To quiet the growing chorus of complaints, Suu Kyi sent a special advisory commission headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Rakhine on Dec. 2-4 to investigate. At a news conference in Yangon on Tuesday, Annan denied reports of armed conflict and arson in the state. He said a legal review is necessary to address the issue.

But the eagerness of the Myanmar government to cooperate with the commission, which plans to compile a report on the issue within two months, has called the neutrality of the group into question.

Friction with the international community is a serious blow for Suu Kyi's government. During Myanmar's long period of military rule, Suu Kyi called on countries to impose economic sanctions on the junta, taking advantage of her name and status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to press her case. That pressure helped the country shift to civilian rule in 2011 and establish a National League for Democracy government under her leadership.

Suu Kyi's influence with the international community helped keep Myanmar's military in check and strengthened her political position. Now she has lost some of her luster, and her hold on the military is slipping. Her strategy of pragmatic compromise and ignoring the plight of the Rohingya no longer seems tenable.

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