Why the Rohingya in Myanmar may not find a saviour in Suu Kyi

Published on December 20, 2016

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

South China Morning Post – December 20, 2016

Nehginpao Kipgen says international censure has spurred the NLD government in Myanmar into taking positive steps, but concerns for the ethnic group are unlikely to trump majority interests

Tensions continue to simmer in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, home to the minority Rohingya Muslims.

The latest wave of violence came after coordinated attacks on border outposts on October 9 killed nine police officers and injured four others. In retaliation, the Myanmar military launched “clearance operations”, which have resulted in more than 100 deaths, with hundreds of others detained, more than 150,000 displaced, dozens of women sexually assaulted and more than 1,200 buildings razed. Aid workers and independent journalists have been banned from travelling to the affected areas.

The office of President Htin Kyaw has rejected reports of rape and said those killed were jihadists, while the military says Muslim terrorists burnt down the houses themselves to frame the army.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, has in particular faced censure for not speaking out in support of the Rohingya. There has even been an online campaign for the Nobel Committee to take back the Peace Prize she received in 1991.

Her critics include those in Myanmar’s fellow Asean states. She put off a trip to Indonesia partly due to protests over the crackdown, while Malaysian leaders have called for Myanmar to be expelled from Asean, with Prime Minister Najib Razak defying NLD warnings to tell a December 4 pro-Rohingya rally in Kuala Lumpur: “Someone tell Myanmar that the Asean Charter also protects human rights.”

Under international pressure, the Myanmese government set up a commission, led by Vice-President Myint Swe, to investigate the violence and the army’s role.

This came after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said many of the crimes against the Rohingya constituted serious rights violations. Also, 13 independent journalists from international and local media were allowed on a guided visit to the conflict-hit Maungdaw township.

However, Suu Kyi is unlikely to go beyond a zone of tolerance for a number of reasons. First, a large majority in Myanmar, including many ethnic minorities, consider the Rohingya to be illegal Bengali immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

Second, the government does not believe or anticipate that a third party, including the UN, would take drastic action to interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar.

Third, on August 24, the government appointed a commission led by former UN chief Kofi Annan to study alleged rights abuses in Rakhine. With Myanmar nationals as well as foreigners in the line-up, the government believes the commission may engender a neutral, mutually acceptable, idea.

Fourth, the government may continue its citizenship verification process in accordance with the 1982 citizenship law, which provides for three categories: full, associate and naturalised citizen.

Fifth, even if Suu Kyi personally wishes to introduce legislation favourable to the Rohingya, this would be difficult to implement under the existing constitution where the military controls the three key ministries of home, defence and border affairs.

Sixth, and perhaps most significant, Suu Kyi is no longer the democratic icon and human rights advocate of before. She has carefully transformed herself from an activist to a pragmatic politician, which entails that she consider the concerns of the majority groups.

However, it would have been a different story had Suu Kyi decided to remain a democratic icon and rights advocate. Things could have also been different if she and the NLD had stayed in the opposition.

Her recent comments in Singapore spoke volumes: “I’m not saying there are no difficulties, but it helps if people recognise the difficulties and are more focused on resolving these difficulties, rather than exaggerating them so that everything seems worse than it really is.”

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, India.

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