BANGKOK—She is known as the voice of Burma’s downtrodden but there is one oppressed group that Aung San Suu Kyi does not want to discuss.
For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman whose struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma have earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and adoration worldwide.
Human rights groups have expressed disappointment, noting that the United Nations has referred to the Rohingya—widely reviled by the Buddhist majority in Burma—as among the most persecuted people on Earth. They say Suu Kyi could play a crucial role in easing the hatred in Myanmar and in making the world pay more attention to the Rohingya.
Analysts and activists say that Suu Kyi’s stance marks a new phase in her career—The former political prisoner is now a more calculating politician who is choosing her causes carefully.
“Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this,” said Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”
The Rohingya have been denied citizenship even though many of their families have lived in Burma for generations. The UN estimates that 800,000 Rohingya live in Burma where they face heavy-handed restrictions—They need permission to marry, have more than two children and travel outside of their villages.
Burma considers the Rohingya to be illegal migrants from Bangladesh but Bangladesh also rejects them, rendering them stateless.
Long-standing resentment between the Muslim Rohingya and Arakanese Buddhists erupted in bloody fury in western Arakan (Rakhine) state in June. They attacked each other with spears and machetes and went on rampages burning homes and razing entire villages. Human Rights Watch estimates that 100,000 people were displaced by the fighting and says the government’s tally of 78 dead is “undoubtedly conservative.”
Rights groups allege the government did little to stop the violence initially and then turned its security forces on the Rohingya with targeted killings, rapes, mass arrests and torture.
Most of the global outrage has come from the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia has accused Burma of launching an “ethnic cleansing campaign” and King Abdullah announced on Saturday he would donate US $50 million in aid to the Rohingya in Burma. Islamic hardliners in Indonesia and Pakistan have threatened attacks against the Burmese government.
The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the violence at a summit this week and said it will present its concerns to the upcoming UN General Assembly.
But the outrage stops at Burma’s borders. A tide of nationalist sentiment against the Rohingya has put Suu Kyi in a no-win situation.
Speaking up for the Rohingya would risk alienating Burma’s Buddhist majority and angering the government at a time when Suu Kyi and her opposition party are trying to consolidate political gains attained after they entered Parliament for the first time in April.
By not speaking up, she has offended some of her staunchest supporters in the international community—the very groups who lobbied tirelessly for her freedom during 15 years of house arrest. Yet many are cautious about directly criticizing Suu Kyi, who is hailed as a human rights superhero and often called the Gandhi of this generation.
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, called it “unfortunate” that Suu Kyi did not confront the issue during her triumphant tour of Europe in June, shortly after the violence occurred.
At news conferences in Geneva, Dublin and Paris, Suu Kyi dodged journalists’ questions about the Rohingya by giving vague, scripted answers about a need for “rule of law” in Burma, officially now called Myanmar.
“The root of the problem is lack of rule of law,” Suu Kyi said in Dublin, seated beside the rock star Bono at a news conference.
Asked if the Rohingya should be granted Burmese citizenship, the Oxford-educated Suu Kyi replied: “I don’t know.”
Canadian-based academic Abid Bahar, a Bangladesh-born expert on Burma’s different communities, said he was “shocked” by Suu Kyi’s failure to take a more principled stand.
“As a Nobel Peace Prize winner she has a big role to play, to work as a conscience for humanity, which she has ignored,” Bahar said. “I thought she was the only person the Rohingya could depend on.”
President Thein Sein’s popularity at home has surged since the June crackdown, analysts say. Many in Burma rallied behind his proposal in July to send all of Burma’s Rohingya to any country “willing to take them,” a suggestion quickly shot down by the UN refugee agency.
“This is an unexpected difficulty that we have faced in our march to democracy,” Thein Sein said in an interview with Voice of America broadcast this week. He denied accusations of genocide from Muslim countries, saying that images posted online showing piles of bodies were “fabrications” and from “incidents that happened in other countries, not here.”
Thein Sein has won widespread praise for introducing a wave of reforms since taking office last year, following decades of repressive rule. But the United Nations and others say the violence in Arakan State shows Burma still has a long way to go, and needs to place human rights at the top of its reforms.
“The situation in Arakan State is giving the so-called new Burma a black eye—in the eyes of the international community,” said Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
“As a political leader with moral authority, Suu Kyi should take this on,” he said. “No one is saying she can dictate policy to the government, but if she speaks out everyone will pay attention.”