Peace Process Should Remain the Priority

By Lawi Weng 17 June 2016

I am sometimes asked by foreign reporters why Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) government is “ignoring” the Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State—a minority group suffering from discrimination and the denial of their human rights.

I reply that Suu Kyi is now a politician, not a human rights activist, and the Rohingya are not the only group to have suffered displacement and deprivation due to conflict. Suu Kyi will likely assist some Rohingya, in order to improve the international image of her government, but she will carefully avoid antagonizing the Buddhist majority in Arakan State.

Suu Kyi became the de facto authority behind the new government in April, after more than two decades of struggle against military rule—for which she was heralded internationally as an icon of democracy and human rights.

Due to this legacy, Suu Kyi was assailed with angry voices from abroad when she, as Burma’s Foreign Minister, advised the US Embassy in Rangoon in early May not to use the word “Rohingya,” after an Embassy statement featuring the word sparked nationalist protests.

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

Earlier, Suu Kyi indicated to a Voice of America Burmese language reporter that they would continue the previous government’s policy of referring to the persecuted Muslim minority group as “Bengali,” a term which implies they are migrants from Bangladesh. She followed up by asking, rhetorically, whether word choice should outweigh a practical solution.

As someone who has conducted on-the-ground reporting on the conflict in Arakan State, I feel the time is overdue for the government to relocate the Rohingya from displaced persons’ camps back to their hometowns and villages, from where they were driven in 2012 and 2013. This seems more important than fighting over a name, which might be better done after relocation.

Displaced Rohingya have suffered deprivation for several years now, and had high expectations that the NLD government and Suu Kyi would oversee their return home. However, their future remains in the dark, and it is unclear what exactly the government is prepared to do for them.

Critics should understand that, without some form of approval from the Buddhist Arakanese majority, relocation and reintegration could not happen. Buddhist Arakanese and Rohingya Muslims can only live side-by-side again if both groups consent to do so.

Suu Kyi appears to understand this well, and knows that the Arakan State government—currently headed by an NLD chief minister—would not be able to function well without the consent of the Arakan National Party, which is the largest party in the state legislature and represents the interests of the Buddhist Arakanese majority.

The Rohingya issue is not the problem requiring the most urgent fix. Ethnic and religious strife in Burma is complex and deep-rooted; there are more than 12 ethnic armed groups who have not signed Burma’s nationwide ceasefire agreement, fighting is ongoing, and thousands of people from across different ethnic lines have been made refugees in the country’s civil war.

For example, after a 17-year ceasefire, fighting resumed in 2011 between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northern Burma’s Kachin State. The conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people, who remain in IDP camps in Kachin and neighboring Shan State, with dwindling funds from international agencies to support them.

While the numbers are lower than the 140,000 displaced by the communal conflict in Arakan State (the overwhelming majority of whom were Muslim Rohingya), those displaced from the Kachin conflict have suffered similar deprivations—particularly those caught behind KIA lines, largely out of reach of the major refugee agencies.

Although they generally enjoy more rights, on paper at least, than the stateless Rohingya, the chronic insecurity brought by war and the virtual absence of rule of law make it impossible for most to exercise their basic rights.

However, the plight of those caught up in conflict in Kachin State and elsewhere across Burma’s ethnic minority borderlands does not receive anything like the attention the Rohingya crisis receives in the international press—or anything like the criticism.

The current administration needs to address both the suffering of the Rohingya and that of Burma’s ethnic groups currently recognized by the government. As the Burma Army continues to wage campaigns against various ethnic armed groups—which include aerial bombing and the recent use of armed drones—the resolution of the peace process remains the correct priority of Suu Kyi and the NLD government.

Lawi Weng is a senior reporter for The Irrawaddy.