RANGOON — Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has received a mix of condemnation and support from Burmese rights activists and religious leaders after denying that Muslims were the targets of ethnic cleansing in her country and saying that fear among Buddhists has exacerbated religious tensions.
In an interview with the BBC on Thursday, Suu Kyi said inter-communal violence that has displaced more than 140,000 Muslims in Burma stemmed partly from an overall state of fear among Buddhists and Muslims alike.
“It’s not ethnic cleansing. … I think it’s due to fear on both sides. And this is what the world needs to understand—that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well,” she said. “Yes, Muslims have been targeted, but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence. There’s fear on both sides, and this is what is leading to all these troubles.”
Suu Kyi, who has been criticized over the past year for not taking a stronger stance against anti-Muslim violence, added, “There’s a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great. And certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world, and in our country, too.”
When asked about Muslims in west Burma’s Arakan State who have lived in squalid displacement camps since two waves of clashes broke out last year in June and October, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said Buddhists had also faced human rights violations for decades under military rule.
“There are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons, and there are many Buddhists who are in refugee camps for various reasons. You will find them in Thailand, very many of them, and you will find them scattered all over the world. This is the result of our sufferings and a dictatorial regime. And I think if you live under a dictator for many years, people don’t learn to trust one another. A dictatorship generates a climate of distrust and suspicion.”
She called on the government to ensure accountability for perpetrators of violence.
“Instead of asking us, the members of the opposition, what we feel about it, what we intend to do about it—because you must see that we are not in a position to do the sort of things that a government must do—you should ask the present government of Burma what their policy is, how they are going about this problem, and how they intend to deal with it.”
During her visit to Europe this week, Suu Kyi on Tuesday traveled to France to receive the Sakharov human rights prize, which she was awarded in 1990 but could not accept at the time.
After her interview on Thursday, international Burma observers responded critically, while a UN rights envoy warned that anti-Muslim sentiments were threatening political reforms amid Burma’s transition from dictatorship.
“The situation in Rakhine [Arakan] State has fed a wider anti-Muslim narrative in Myanmar [Burma], which is posing one of the most serious threats to the reform process,” Tomas Ojea Quintana told the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues, as quoted by Reuters.
Meanwhile, Burma observers including David Blair, chief foreign correspondent of The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London, criticized Suu Kyi’s BBC statements.
“I never thought I would write this, but Aung San Suu Kyi sent a shiver down my spine when she appeared on the [BBC’s] Today programme this morning. Her equivocal attitude towards the violence suffered by Burma’s Muslim minority was deeply disturbing,” Blair wrote in an online commentary for the newspaper.
Others in Burma were more sympathetic to the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, who won the hearts of many in her country through her opposition to the military dictatorship that ceded power to Thein Sein’s nominally civilian administration in 2011.
In Rangoon, an editor of the country’s first human rights journal said Suu Kyi should have said more to condemn anti-Muslim violence, but that he could understand her decision to refrain from taking sides, with her eye on becoming the country’s next president in 2015.
“She spoke in a diplomatic way,” said Wai Yan Phone, editor in charge of the recently launched Journal of Human Rights and Democracy, published by the Myanmar Knowledge Society. “She doesn’t want to lose votes from the Buddhist majority and she doesn’t want to hurt the Muslims who were the victims of violence last year.”
He agreed that Naypyidaw had not taken enough responsibility to hold perpetrators of violence accountable.
“The government has a full responsibility to stop hate speech and to mobilize harmony among different religious groups in the country,” he told The Irrawaddy on Friday. “But so far, only civil society has organized interfaith talks, while the government has been very inactive to address this issue. … And as we have read, security forces have done nothing, almost nothing to stop the advancing mobs from attacking the Muslims.”
He added, “I think she should have said more. When it comes to the issue, especially with the Rohingya [Muslims] and inter-communal violence, she is less vocal than she should be.”
Pyone Cho, who leads the human rights sector for the 88 Generation Students, a prominent group of pro-democracy activists, also supported Suu Kyi’s points about government accountability.
“We suggest that human rights groups should deal directly with government authorities on this issue,” he told The Irrawaddy, emphasizing that his views did not necessarily reflect those of his organization. He said he had personally urged Human Rights Watch not to describe violence in west Burma as ethnic cleansing, before the US-based rights group published a report earlier this year describing the June and October clashes as such.
Asked why he did not agree with the term “ethnic cleansing,” Pyone Cho said, “Because both sides were violated. Everybody should try to stop the problem peacefully.”
The inter-communal violence that broke out in Arakan State last year has been a major stain on the political and economic reforms of Thein Sein’s administration. Of more than 140,000 people displaced, a majority were from a Muslim group known as the Rohingya, who are largely denied citizenship by the government and accused of immigrating to Burma illegally from Bangladesh, although many Rohingya families have lived in the country for generations.
Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown since last year, with inter-communal violence breaking out in parts of central, east and northwest Burma. Earlier this month, west Burma saw renewed violence near the town of Thandwe. The Muslims targeted in these bouts of violence were not Rohingya, but members of ethnic groups that are recognized as citizens.
Kyi Twe, a leader of a Rangoon-based Buddhist association that helps educate monks, said religious tensions were rising during Burma’s reform period.
“I do not have much comment on ASSK’s answers. Basically I agree with her,” said the secretary of the Shin Thar Ma Ne Dhamma Beikman Thar Tha Na Wun Saung Association, whichholds annual examinations for novice monks and promotes Buddhist teachings.
“But I have something to say about the originating factor of the problem. In older days, Burma’s Buddhists and Muslims lived hand in hand, peacefully, for several hundred years. The problem is the modern way of Muslims’ teachings and actions, which have become so aggressive that no Buddhist can tolerate it anymore.
“Of course the government needs a strong policy based on mutual respect, and also improvement of the economy. The second most important and urgent action for the government is to safeguard the borderline. Make sure that no more illegal foreigners are allowed to get in.”
Meanwhile, Rohingya activists denounced Suu Kyi’s comments to the BBC as “absurd.”
“The Nobel laureate’s description of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar as a result of a ‘climate of fear’ is full of absurdity,” Wakar Uddin, director general of the Arakan Rohingya Union, said in a statement on Thursday. “The violence in Myanmar has always been one-sided where Rohingya and Myanmar Muslims are the victims.”
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a humanitarian group which works for Rohingya rights, urged Suu Kyi to take more responsibility for speaking out against anti-Muslim violence. “It is easy to dismiss all responsibilities on the government,” she said. “All stakeholders, including the opposition and the NLD, have a role to play to address and challenge deep-seated prejudices against Muslims in Burmese society.”
Myo Win, a spokesman for the Burmese Muslim Association, said regardless of whether clashes in Arakan State could be classified as ethnic cleansing, it was clear that ethnic violence has occurred and tens of thousands of people had been displaced. “That unresolved problem still exists,” he said, adding that he agreed with Suu Kyi about the government’s need to take responsibility.
However, he was disappointed when the opposition leader, who—following a statement by the BBC that Muslims have borne the brunt of recent violence—responded by saying that many Buddhists had fled during military rule and were living in refugee camps in Thailand.
“I was hoping she would say Muslims have experienced the vast majority of suffering,” he said.
“Many Burmese Muslims have contributed to nation-building and have been well-integrated into society. This is also the case in the present time.”