Arakan Strife Poses Suu Kyi Political Problem

Aung San Suu Kyi attends the 100th anniversary of the founding of Rangoon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in December. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Aung San Suu Kyi must have wished for a less tumultuous atmosphere during her first return to Europe for 24 years. The opposition leader is due to celebrate her 67th birthday with her two sons in England as well as belatedly accept the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, but she leaves a homeland gripped by sectarian strife.

While few would begrudge Suu Kyi her long-overdue sojourn abroad the timing is undoubtedly poor. Tensions in Burma’s northwestern Arakan State have claimed at least 20 lives so far as Buddhists and Muslims engage in clashes sparked by the gang-rape and murder of an Arakanese Buddhist girl, allegedly by three Muslim men, in late May, and the retaliatory slaying of 10 Muslim pilgrims on a bus last week.

These clashes have degenerated into a more general conflict between the ethnic Arakanese and the much maligned Rohingya group—a stateless people numbering around 800,000 in the west of the country that are unwanted by both Burma and Bangladesh.

While the default standpoint for domestic strife in Burma has long been to blame the military government, this situation has been received somewhat differently. Protests have actually called on reformist President Thein Sein’s administration to step in and do more to quell the fighting—calling for the “rule of law” to be imposed.

Would these be the same vaguely-drafted statutes that have been used to lock up political dissenters for years with no justifiable reason? For some the Burmese state has suddenly become too liberal overnight.

But not all memories are so short-term. Burma expert and journalist Bertil Lintner told UK-based The Week magazine on Tuesday that Naypyidaw was likely instigating the conflict to wedge its old adversary Suu Kyi into a hard place.

“The violence is clearly well orchestrated and not as spontaneous as we are being led to believe,” he said “The answer is plain to see—the government is very worried about the support commanded by Suu Kyi.

“It wants to force her into a position where she has to make a pro-Rohingya public statement that could damage her popularity among Burma’s Buddhists, where anti-Muslim sentiment runs high. On the other hand, if she remains silent she will disappoint those who support her firm stand on human rights.”

While rumors abound of military personnel disguising themselves as Arakanese and burning Rohingya homes, as well as disguising themselves as Rohingya and torching Arakanese homes—and seemingly every possible permutation between the protagonists—very little can be substantiated.

One possible corollary is that the Burmese security forces—so long a subject of intense fear and mistrust—have been validated as “peacekeepers” in some eyes domestically. Certainly, the way Thein Sein has reacted by calling for calm in an address to the nation has drawn international plaudits—for once eclipsing even Suu Kyi—and drawing praise from the EU.

“We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult inter-communal violence in an appropriate way,” Maja Kocijanic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. “We welcome the priority which the Myanmar government is giving to dealing with all ethnic conflicts.”

Suu Kyi clearly appears acutely aware of the sticky situation. “The majority need to have mercy on the minority. The majority have to be more compassionate and have more understanding. Don’t lose your temper,” she told Islamic leaders in Rangoon on June 6, before admitting that “some people won’t agree with me saying so.”

Undoubtedly tensions even in Rangoon remain high. Regular Arakanese protests have taken place around the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda while Islamic groups have also been holding demonstrations.

Some residents have even started stockpiling supplies and acquiring weapons to protect their home in case riots erupt, and residents are nervously awaiting Friday prayers in case they spark disorder.

Talk of Al-Qaeda involvement has even taken hold—perhaps an unfortunate byproduct of conservative Western press coverage of unrelated Islamic issues—while even prominent Muslims have moved to distance themselves from the Rohingya predicament.

Mya Aye, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, recently said that the Arakan conflict was “from the other country”—deemed a reference to Bangladesh, where around 200,000 Rohingya live as refugees—to apparently make the distinction with Burmese Muslims like himself.

All this puts Suu Kyi in a difficult position during her quest to the West. Arakan will undoubtedly be brought up many times, and it would be extraordinary to detach herself from the Rohingya—deemed “one of the world’s most persecuted minority groups” by the UN—while collecting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Conversely, to come out in defense of the Rohingya will cause domestic uproar. Even in her National League for Democracy (NLD) party “the Rohingya question has not been settled,” as one leading member recently told the BBC.

Indeed, polling stations in Muslim-population townships of Rangoon were buzzing with hijab-clad NLD voters during the April 1 by-elections. The expedient course politically would be to quell the violence while placating both the Islamic and Arakanese supporters for her party.

Yet this would most likely come at the expense of the Rohingya, and in turn international credibility after so many years harping on about “human rights”—especially just as Bangladesh refuses to accept more than 1,500 Rohingya Muslims who claim to be fleeing violence in Burma.

Suu Kyi’s transformation from prisoner to parliamentarian has come about swiftly. However, without the old foe of the military junta to vilify, treading the political tightrope shall not be a painless transition.

Dear Readers:The Irrawaddywelcomes your opinions and views on the issue in Arakan State, irrespective of your race, religion or bias. However, we cannot publish and will not tolerate those who use offensive language or racial insults, or those who try to spread propaganda or who incite violence.Please use this forum respectfully.

The Irrawaddy Team


12 Responses to Arakan Strife Poses Suu Kyi Political Problem

  1. A country of Superstitious, prone to be victims of rumors, present turmoil is pure ly sectarian, Government is not stupid enough to instigate such turmoil. Crazy groundless assumption.

  2. This issue does not pose any poliical problem to DASSK because she is not the president of Burma and she just shared her view on the root-cause of the issue. No matter how this situation goes, she just contines her journey to achiee the true democracy.

  3. The Lady is well advised as she alledgedly told to support all victims of the clashes, irrespective of ethnical or religious affiliation. This undermines any possible attempt to make her appear standing at one of the conflict’s sides: She’s taking the side of all victims in this conflict, a scenario that does hardly emerge in the mind of a person thinking in military or power terms.
    She in addition could even condemn any person’s violent actions as crimes, irrespective of ethnical or religious affiliation. Only exclusion could be the defense of a present and ongoing assault against life and health (or valuable property) of oneself or somebody at the scene with adequate measures in self-defence or emergency assistance.
    So, she is opposing all senselessly violent people in this conflict, taking once again a side without taking part at the ethnically-coloured blame-game that condemns innocents and takes away responsibility from evil doers. And, by the way. helps ugly-minded people to divide the country into “their side” and “the other’s side”.

  4. Myanmar must treat the Rohingyas as equal citizens. They have been in Burma since the country was part of British India. The Rohingya culture has evolved differently from that of Indian Muslims. Even the name Rohingya is of Burmese origin.

  5. This is a new low for Irrawaddy; citing the so-called “ Burma expert and journalist” Lintner who is accusing the government of orchestrating the unrest in Rakhine state. Has he been there on the ground and witnessed the rioting? Has he spoken with scores of local Rakhine ethnics and other reporters who have witnessed the so-called Rohingyas burning down houses and monasteries? Where is the “clear” evidence that Thein Sein is pulling the strings behind these Rohingyas who are committing rape, murder, arson, and terrorizing the local Rakhine ethnics? Common sense would tell you that any sign of instability makes the government, democratic or not, look weak.

    Having freedom of speech and press does not mean one can print whatever ignorant, ill-informed persons claim. There are people who believe that pyramids were built by aliens and that the moon landing was fake and shot in a Hollywood studio. But you won’t see any credible news organizations publishing those unfounded rumors. The only reason I’m even commenting on this piece of garbage is because certain foreign media organizations (such as NYT) still regard Irrawaddy as a credible news source even though it continues to publish ridiculous gossip as news even as the media laws and regulations in the country have loosened up. If Irrawaddy wants to find out the truth about these riots, why not send some reporters to the ground instead of making up conspiracy theories?

  6. Gandhi would not now be traveling to Europe at this time – he would be in the Arakan. Maybe Zarganar will go – he seems to understand all the Burmese people better then ASSK. ASSK seems to be more concerned about her idol status and Western supporters than the non-Burman people. The government opposition needs new leadership which understands emerging situations and acts decisively to help resolve them. ASSK is not between a “rock and a hard place” any more than Gandhi was during the problems between the Muslims and Hindus. Perhaps ASSK should spend some time re-reading the Ganhdi book she was shown with in the move “The Lady”. I don’t mean to be hard on her. She has shown courage and moral leadership, but leack really leadership that understands situations and acts skillfully to acheive meaningful results.

  7. There is no doubt that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might wish to have a better timing to start her five-nation tour as an opposition leader after nearly a quarter of a century absence from Europe. It may also be true that she would have to walk on a tightrope in answering questions regarding the ethnic strife which has been playing out now at home with deadly consequences.

    However, Mr. Bertil Lintner’s unfounded accusations are absolutely ridiculous. As the report admitted, rumors of military personnel in disguise burning both Rakhine and Muslim homes in order to “wedge its old adversary” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi into a hard place cannot be substantiated and are just a malicious attempt to discredit a reform-oriented government that has so far shown only cooperation and partnership to the Nobel Laureate. I put much hope on U Thein Sein government even though I have been an anti-military regime activist for many decades. On the other hand, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will undoubtedly find the right tone to comment on the current disturbances and future solutions for them. Suggestions that she might have difficulties to step up to the plate over the present situations belittle her ability and intelligence.

    Many news organizations are erroneously describing the deadly events as religious intolerance by Burmese-Rakhine Buddhists against minority Muslims. They were rather criminal activities of groups on both sides that are taking the law into their own hands and making hot-headedly revenges against each other. Nothing could be farther from the truth if the security personnel are accused of committing atrocious crimes while they are genuinely trying to protect innocent people.

    There are conflicts, sometimes violently, between different ethnic, nationality and religious groups everywhere in the world but nobody can accuse Burmese of religious intolerance. It is rare to find a country like Burma where all major religions of the region enjoy freedom. Muslims’ Ramadan Eid, Hundus’ Diwali and Christians’ Christmas are all official public holidays in Burma. Mosques, Hindu temples and churches can be found all over the country and all people are happily celebrating one another’s religious festivals.

  8. In many Western countries Aung San Suu Kyi is not just a “Burmese idol”. She is an icon and a champion for universal human rights issues all across the globe (just ask Bono from U2!). I have lived in the West for over 40 years now (I left Burma way before 1988, when Suu Kyi went back) and I roughly understand, at least at the politically correct level, how the West (including the UN) views human rights issues and this is closely tied to immigration, refugee status, political asylum etc. that many exile Burmese should know about. Discrimination is a definite no no, 100% taboo. No human being is supposed to be discriminated against, especially not because of Ethnicity and/or Religion (if you take the definition of being “indigenous” seriously all white Americans will have to move back to Europe!). Most people in Burma, I believe, still have a fundamental misunderstanding about how the West views discrimination based on ethnicity, skin colour, religion, gender, physical disability etc. The human race have fought wars over these issues for millennia (Burma is no exception) and most Western societies have decided to “outlaw” such views.
    Having said that, everyone knows Burma’s borders are extremely porous (not just in the West, even more so in the North and East, where the Chinese are moving in) with all those “ethnic armies” fighting for “autonomy” and their “human rights”(sic). The central government never really controlled these areas, since Burma’s independence in 1947. Smuggling and trafficking is rampant. Even Burmese ID’s can easily be bought and sold, if you have enough cash, by bribing the corrupt soldiers, police, immigration and customs officials. Given this situation how can the government impose strict control of “citizenship” in the country? In most sovereign countries (even in China lol), taking up arms against the central government (for whatever reason) is considered a civil war and wars are never “fair”. If people in Burma really want to be protected by the central government under the “rule of law” and want to control the flow of refugees and illegal immigration (Bengalis or Chinese or whatever), they have to eradicate corruption, support the central government and reform it democratically (one can rewrite the constitution to make it more a federal union, for example) but most importantly disband these “smuggler war-lords” (of all kinds, including the burmese army officers) in all the border regions. Otherwise there will be no peace in Burma and without peace one can forget about “Freedom from Fear”!

  9. Stupid article like this one must not be posted. Thein Sein is in-charge, not Daw Suu. If you expect Daw Suu to do everything you wish for he country, tell Thein Sein to step down and put Daw Suu on the throne to run the Union of Burma, Mr. Stupid.

    • I whole-heartedly agree. It’s President Thein Sein’s job to put an end to the long-simmering madness in the Arakan state, not Daw Suu’s. If the democracy leader so much as raises a finger on this matter, it can only be construed as an interference and an attempt to upstage the president.

      Sure, she has moral authority and she has exercised this in a prudent and low-key manner. The rest is up to the government.

  10. Farouq Omaro Every country has its own immigration rules. To become a naturalized citizen of Myanmar, one must be from a mixed marriage of a Myanmar citizen and a non-citizen. A foreigner marrying a Myanmar citizen does not grant citizenship, but it might provide later citizenship for a child of this marriage. No one that is the child of two foreign parents can become a citizen under any circumstances. To become a citizen, one must be 18 years old, must speak one of the national languages, must be of “good character and good mind” and must take an oath of allegiance to the state. The Ministry of Home Affairs has authority over these decisions, but the president of the union can intervene at any time.
    To become the ethnic minority- Those who are members of tribes living within the present boundaries of Burma, and whose tribe has been living within these borders since 1823 are granted associate citizenship. The same laws apply to associate citizens as to naturalized citizens or ethnic majority citizens.

  11. The situation the Rohingya find themselves in has not come about over the last week. These are people discriminated against for centuries. Over the time that SLORC ruled Burma with Ne win and Than Shwe presiding over the destruction of the Burmese economy, the impoverishment of the populace and the annhililation of dissent, Aung san Suu Kyi was either growing up, studying overseas or under house arrest. To imply that she is somehow responsible for controlling the current situation of unrest in Rakhine, or that she should hurry back to deal with it assumes that she and not SLORC dressed in a tutu [ those now ruling Burma] is in charge of the nation. She damn well should be, that goes without saying. But it’s the Generals that are responsible for decades of state sponsored murder and rampant theft from the people of Burma and it’s the generals who allowed the discrimination against minorities to fester into the atrocities we see now. Why the hell don’t they go out there and deal with it?

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