Arakan Strife Poses Suu Kyi Political Problem

By Charlie Campbell 13 June 2012

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