Suu Kyi’s crown of thorns: the future of the Rohingyas and Myanmar are both at stake
Aung San Suu Kyi is clearly at a perilous point in her political journey, when she needs to reach out to the majority Burman community, calm the fears of both sides and open a transparent dialogue that enables the Rohingyas to return to their homeland in peace and dignity. She knows, as much as anyone else, especially the generals, that her elected government represents a truly critical transition period that stands between a democratic Myanmar and returning to an unenviable past.
If anything, Aung San Suu Kyi’s 29-minute State of the Union address underlined the crown of thorns that she wears.
When Myanmar’s State Counsellor and non-official head of government, broke her resolute silence today on the Rohingya crisis, having held out for weeks against international appeals on the military crackdown in the Muslim-dominated parts of Rakhine state, she still avoided addressing the critical issue of oppressive State violence.
The broadcast was dominated by the Rohingya crisis though she referred to the community only once by name and that too when she spoke of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which has been designated as a terrorist group by her government. Suu Kyi acknowledged that thousands of Muslims had fled into Bangladesh and assured of the upholding of human rights and promised action against those regardless of religion, ethnicity or political connections. To many, it did not go far enough. But could she?
For it is not just the Rohingyas, the immediate tragedy, which is the core issue – it is securing and stabilising the very future of Myanmar’s democracy based on its multi-ethnic structure, a point she returned to time and again.
When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming majority in national elections two years back ending decades of military rule, expectations were sky-high in the world, not just her homeland. It has not been easy. Efforts to broker peace with Myanmar’s many warring ethnic groups have been shaky, the economy is in poor shape and it’s been a delicate tango with the generals who hold four key Cabinet posts and 25% of the Parliament’s MPs.
Suu Kyi held out hope for the return and repatriation of the Rohingyas – but it was conditional: if they agreed to abide by a process of verification. She acknowledged that there were many charges of human rights abuse but made no mention of the fact that it was the military which was largely accused of this violence. The predicament in which the Nobel Peace Prize winner finds herself is seen in her guarded references to the military, that they had been told to abide by the law, respect human rights and that no security operations had taken place recently.
Suu Kyi, who has been criticised by several fellow Nobel Laureates, spoke glowingly of how many Muslims continued to live in their villages. “More than 50% Muslim villages” were unaffected by the violence, she said.
But that immediately asked a simple counter-question: what happened to the other 50% and why?
In fact, in just over a month, close to 400,000 had left their homes and flowed into Bangladesh, propelled by fear and the impact of violence and security campaigns. There are 300,000 Rohingyas who had left in earlier years and are too scared to return. The army went on an offensive following coordinated attacks by ARSA on 30 military camps, timed to devastate the sliver of hope which had appeared when former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s report on the situation was released. Suu Kyi’s government responded positively to the call for dialogue – but it was not to be.
As a result of successive government policies, largely that of strong-arm army regimes which ruled with an iron fist despite internal schisms and changes, the Rohingyas, who happen to be Muslim with a history of living in the western part of the country over centuries, have been converted into stateless, non-citizens of Myanmar for nearly 60 years.
Suu Kyi sought to deflect widespread criticism, by inviting diplomats “and friends” to visit the affected areas, and declaring that the Rohingya crisis was but one of many challenges.
She is clearly at a perilous point of her political journey, when she needs to reach out to the majority Burman community and calm the fears of both sides, opening a transparent dialogue that enables the Rohingyas to return to their homeland in peace and dignity. She knows, as much as anyone else, especially the generals, that her elected government represents a truly critical transition period that stands between a democratic Myanmar and returning to an unenviable past.
We note that the Government of India has asserted in the Supreme Court that there are security issues in the presence of 40,000 Rohingyas here. But there cannot be a blanket blacklist of tens of thousands of poor and vulnerable people who have sought refuge here. After all, Suu Kyi’s offer of taking back refugees from Bangladesh is conditional. And can India carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations?
New Delhi has to instruct its agencies to adhere to the law. Article 21 of the Constitution lays an obligation on the Government to ensure the life and liberty of all living in the country, without distinction of nationality or otherwise.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Sep 22, 2017 17:22:16