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Why is Suu Kyi silent on Rohingyas?

November 23, 2014

Harun ur Rashid

The Daily Star


RAKHINE state (formerly Arakan) in Myanmar has a diverse ethnic population. Official figures give the state’s population as 40 lakhs (4 million) as of 2010. Rakhine state has a large Muslim minority, known as Rohingyas, of about 523,000, according to a 2009 UN estimate.  According to the UN, they are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.


In 1982, the military rulers in Myanmar passed the Citizenship Act, in which there is a provision which states that people whose ancestors came to settle in Myanmar before 1823 would be considered as citizens. The Myanmar leaders asserted that Rohingyas came to the Rakhine state after 1823 and were, thus, foreigners. Contrary to such assertions, historians claim that the Rohingya’s earliest ancestors in Arakan date back to the 8th century.


An estimated 90,000 people have been displaced by the violence in 2012. About 2,528 houses were burned, of which 1,336 belonged to the Rohingyas and 1,192 to the Rakhines. The army and police were accused of playing a leading role in targeting Rohingyas through mass arrests and arbitrary violence. Amnesty International and other human rights groups were critical, stating that the Rohingyas were fleeing due to arbitrary arrests by the government and that they had faced discrimination by the government for decades.


When hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas in the Rakhine state were driven from their homes, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi did not speak up for them or against the gross violation of human rights. While Suu Kyi met thousands of Myanmar refugees in May 2012 at a Thai border camp and promised to try as much as she could to help them return home, she has yet to visit the Rakhine state to see for herself the condition of the Rohingyas.


Most of her admirers abroad were astonished that she abdicated her moral responsibility to denounce such grave abuses on an ethnic minority in her country. It is reported that the Asia Advocacy director for Human Rights, John Sifton, said: “It is her authority as an iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner that she has failed to wield.”


There could be several reasons for her silence. Some of them are as follows:


First, according to observers, with the withdrawal of the Japanese from Myanmar after the Second World War, the undisputed leader of Myanmar’s independence U Aung San (Suu Kyi is the only daughter of Aung San) convened the Panglong Conference in 1947.  The Conference was held to discuss the constitutional future of Myanmar. Aung San invited only the Buddhist representatives of the Rakhine state and reached an Agreement with them. The Muslims (Rohingyas) found themselves excluded from the Panglong conference and had no voice in it.

The Agreement following the Panglong Conference set the stage for the Myanmar Constitution of 1947. The legal status of more than half a million Rohingyas in Myanmar has been suspect in the eyes of Myanmar leadership since those days and from the early census. Many believe that since her father, the founder of Myanmar, had excluded the Rohingyas, Suu Kyi is probably hesitant to support their cause.


Second, she has expressed her desire to become president of the country and the current president Thein Sein reportedly said that he would accept her as president if people voted for her in the 2015 election. It is argued she does not wish to alienate the Buddhist voters by supporting the Rohingyas.


Third, it is reported that Suu Kyi’s chief of staff Dr. Tin Mary Aung, a medical doctor who belongs to an ethnic group which is fighting against the Rohingyas, influenced Suu Kyi’s decision to keep a low profile on the Rohingyas.


Fourth, under the present constitution of Myanmar, she is not eligible to run for the presidency because her two sons are British citizens by birth. There is speculation that she could be made the Speaker of the parliament, which is also a powerful position. With this being the case she does not wish annoy the government, especially the powerful military establishment.


Suu Kyi needs to speak out her stance boldly on gross violation of human rights and tensions in ethnic minority areas, including the fate of Rohingyas. Analysts say she remains a national heroine and may be able to change her country’s image by taking a stance on the fate of the Rohingyas that is fair, just and humane.


The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.