Commentary

Despite Criticism, Suu Kyi Offers Hope to Rohingya

By Lawi Weng 24 June 2016

If we see each other as humans and show mutual respect, then it is easy to solve problems. But when one side looks at the other as if they are sub-human, it is almost impossible to come up with a solution. This is what is happening in Arakan State, where the UN has accused Burma of human rights violations.

The Rohingya are Muslims and are also perceived as having darker skin than the local ethnic Arakanese Buddhists, who believe that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They call them “Bengali,” despite their own wish to be identified as “Rohingya.” This has left the government and the UN powerless to bring the two communities together.

Their ancestors may have come from Bangladesh a long time ago, but most of the Rohingya were born in the region, and some—although by no means a majority—even have ID cards. They want to return to their homes after staying more than four years in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, but that is still impossible.

If we see them as human beings, we should give them citizenship, and let them return to their homes with dignity. Then, not only would this problem be addressed, it would improve the image of our country and that of the government.

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Lawi Weng is a Senior Reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.
Lawi Weng is a Senior Reporter for The Irrawaddy English edition.

Zaw Htay, deputy spokesman for the President’s Office, admitted that the previous government violated the human rights of the Rohingya who are living in IDP camps, but because the new government is undergoing reforms, he asked that the UN and the international community be less rigid when addressing this issue.

Suu Kyi revealed her new stance when she said her government would only use the term “Muslim community in Arakan State,” and avoid both “Rohingya” or “Bengali” when referring to the group. This was intended to improve the image of the government, and could be seen as an attempt to address the conflict within the community. But both Arakanese and Rohingya have voiced their anger over this new term, showing how difficult it is to deal with the issue.

Over the last few years, nearly every time conflict broke out on the ground, I went to Arakan State. My last trip was in 2014. While I was in Ohn Daw Gyi IDP camp, a middle-aged man brought me inside a small hut because he wanted me to help his father, who was in such poor health that he could not walk and had to lie on the ground. The old man thought I was a doctor, and he wanted me to give him an examination to see what was wrong. I told him I was a journalist, not a doctor.

This experience showed me how bad the healthcare situation is in the camps.

I could not sleep well whenever I returned home from the camps in the region, and I sometimes felt that I did not want to go back there. They are all human beings. Why do they have to live in such poverty as if they are sub-human? If everyone could see them as humans, we could solve this problem.

Suu Kyi may understand this; she may provide some human rights protection for the Rohingya. But her new stance did not get support from the Arakanese people. And many on the Rohingya side do not like the new term her government has introduced either.

In the meantime, the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights Yanghee Lee visited Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, on Wednesday. The Rohingya have high expectations whenever she visits because they view her as a person who will stand up for their human rights; in this regard, the Rohingya trust her more than Suu Kyi.

Burma has experienced political reform, and we finally have a civilian-led government. But the military still has influence and power, so the situation is not yet ideal. The Rohingya should have a little more faith in Suu Kyi and see that she, like Yanghee Lee, is someone who could help them.

Lawi Weng is a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy.

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