Aung San Suu Kyi Should Not Avoid Minority Problems

Published on October 1, 2012

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Huffington Post – October 1, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi’s 17-day visit to the United States of America, which began on September 17, has been received with warmth and enthusiasm. Her years of perseverance and dedication have deservingly earned such recognition.

The thought of Suu Kyi receiving a standing ovation by members of the U.S. Congress at the Capitol Rotunda and a meeting with a U.S. President at the White House seemed unrealistic until recent years.

As Burma progresses with its democratic reforms, expectations await Suu Kyi. In Burma’s democracy movement history, two remarkable statements from Suu Kyi’s family continue to linger in the minds of the Burmese people, especially ethnic minorities.

“If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat” was made a year before the country’s independence in 1948. Aung San, founder of the Burmese Independence Army and father of Suu Kyi, made this historic statement in an attempt to convince other nationalities to join the Union of Burma.

The objective of the statement was to guarantee equal rights for all nationalities in post-independent Burma, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds.

That assurance convinced the Chin, the Kachin and the Shan leaders to join the interim government led by Aung San, which led to the formation of the Union of Burma on February 12, 1947. Until today, February 12 has been observed as the country’s Union Day.

Even after sixty years of the country’s independence, minority problems in the country remain unresolved. Ceasefires have been reached with majority of armed ethnic groups, but tension remains high in the Kachin state. The core issue of autonomy has also remained uncertain.

“Please use your liberty to promote ours” was a statement Aung San Suu Kyi made in her commencement address to the American University in Washington, D.C. in 1997. The objective was to garner the support of the international community.

During her tour in the United States, Suu Kyi has been asked questions on minority problems, particularly in Kachin and Rakhine (Arakan) states. In similar responses, Suu Kyi emphasized the need for rule of law but refrained from condemning the Burmese military.

Burma’s post-independent era has been plagued by majority-minority conundrum, which ethnic minorities have accused the majority group of adopting Burmanization policy and Burman chauvinism.

As someone who receives unflinching support from ethnic minorities, Suu Kyi needs to speak up more on minority problems. The issue must not wait until she becomes head of the government or when her National League for Democracy has majority members in the parliament.

Suu Kyi’s reticence could entail the country’s ethnic minorities to question her leadership and credibility. As she once famously said, she must use her freedom to promote others and stress the need for equality of rights for all ethnic nationalities which her late father envisaged.

The latest U.S. government’s decision to lift economic sanctions should be a new impetus for both Thein Sein government and Suu Kyi-led opposition to address ethnic conflict and human rights violations in minority territories.

A democracy without resolving minority problems will not bring durable peace and stability in the country. Building mutual trust is essential to strengthening the relationship between the majority Burman and the minority non-Burman groups.

Being the daughter of Aung San, her connection with the Western world, as a Noble peace prize recipient, and because of her relentless commitment toward democracy and human rights, Suu Kyi has the respect that no other of her contemporaries has in the Burmese politics. She must utilize this unique position to win the hearts and minds of ethnic minorities in order to build a unified and vibrant multi-ethnic society.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum. His general research interests include political transition, democratization, human rights, ethnic conflict and identity politics. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally.

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