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Aung San Suu Kyi Is in Power. So Why Is She Ignoring Her Country’s Most Vulnerable People?

For the Rohingya, Burma’s new democratic government is little better than the old dictatorship.

GettyImages-532142588 crop
GettyImages-532142588 crop

As Burma’s new government gets down to business, one thing is increasingly clear -- there won’t be much to look forward to for the country’s one million or so Rohingya people.

As Burma’s new government gets down to business, one thing is increasingly clear — there won’t be much to look forward to for the country’s one million or so Rohingya people.

The West has rejoiced at the election of a new government dominated by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and headed, in effect, by the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner. But for the Muslims of western Rakhine state — described by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority in the world” — Burma’s new era is already turning out to be a disappointment. There is almost certainly worse to come.

The Rohingya have endured decades of harassment, marginalization, and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Burma’s old military regimes (and the local Rakhine people), amounting, some argue, to genocide. Everyone knew that Burma’s new leader, Suu Kyi, has also been ambivalent towards their plight. She has refused to even call them by their own name, for fear of offending the country’s often Islamophobic Buddhist majority in the run-up to last November’s general election, which she won by a landslide. But surely Burma’s first civilian government since the 1960s would be better than the murderous, kleptocratic rule of the generals?

Maybe not. First came the news, in mid-May, that the Burmese foreign ministry (now headed by Suu Kyi) had asked the American embassy not to use the term Rohingya on the spurious grounds that it was “controversial” and “not supportive in solving the problem that is happening in Rakhine state.” The Americans refused. The request was utterly disingenuous. The Rakhine people might indeed prefer to call the Rohingya “Bengalis” (implying that they are illegal immigrants from what is now Bangladesh), but this is an essential part of the exclusion of the Rohingya from the mainstream of Burmese life that constitutes the problem in the first place.

Prompted by the visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Suu Kyi returned to the theme on May 22, saying that her government would be firm about not using “emotive terms” like Rohingya or Bengali. Yet, as has been pointed out, she has never asked anyone — chauvinist Buddhist monks, soldiers or legislators — to refrain from using the term “Bengali.” The Rohingya will also have been disappointed that President Obama recently relaxed sanctions against Burma as a reward for its shift towards democracy, without mentioning the fact that nothing has changed in the authorities’ mistreatment of the Rohingya.

Furthermore, it is evident that the Rohingya will be excluded from the formal “peace process” that the new government intends to take up with the rest of the country’s ethnic minority groups, such as the Kachin, Karen, Chin, Shan and more. This process, inherited from the last government of President Thein Sein, is an attempt to find a lasting resolution to the civil conflicts that have plagued the country virtually since its independence from Britain in 1948. Suu Kyi has called for a second “Panglong-style” peace conference, invoking the memory of an agreement her father, General Aung San, negotiated with indigenous ethnic groups in 1947 before he was assassinated.

The recent peace process, however, has involved only those groups defined as indigenous peoples under the terms of the controversial, military-inspired 1982 Citizenship Act. The Rohingya are not citizens under that act, and they have never been included in any such process.

In all likelihood, the new government will simply try to park the Rohingya issue, which is viewed as marginal. Burma’s new president, Htin Kyaw, has set up a grand-sounding “Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State,” which consists of 27 officials, including the members of the cabinet and representatives of the Rakhine state government, to be chaired by Suu Kyi herself. But the Rohingya fear that this is merely a bureaucratic device meant to postpone taking any firm decisions, and they also worry that they may not even have any input into the committee. Meanwhile, the government will get on with drawing up the federal-style constitution that is needed to satisfy the political aspirations of other ethnic minority groups. There is a lot of sympathy among members of Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, for the suffering of the Karen, Kachin, and others over the past decades. So the party can be expected to negotiate in good faith with these groups, who are also represented institutionally at the higher levels of the NLD. There is very little sympathy, however, for the Rohingya among party ranks — the NLD is only marginally less riddled with Islamophobia and prejudice against the Rohingya than the last military government. Neither do the Rohingya have any voice or representation in the NLD.

Indeed, for the first time in recent years, since last November’s election there is not a single Muslim legislator in the entire country, despite the fact that the Muslim population of Burma numbers up to three million. Suu Kyi knows that that there is no political constituency in Burma for helping the Rohingya, just as she also knows that they do not have an armed wing (as most of the other ethnic groups do), so their capacity to make life difficult for the authorities has always been correspondingly less. In other words, apart from the demands of her own conscience, Burma’s de facto leader has little domestic incentive to do anything at all for the Rohingya.

The risk is that pushing the issue to the margins will have a devastating effect on the already desperate situation of the Rohingya. Separated from the rest of the population in refugee camps, or cooped up in their villages, their movement is tightly restricted. They have been cut off from their former sources of livelihood and live under an apartheid system in their own land. Ambia Preveen, a Rohingya doctor working in Germany, estimates that 90 percent of the Rohingya are denied access to formal healthcare. A recent study of poverty and health in Rakhine state by Mahmood Saad Mahmood for Harvard University shows vast disparities between the Rohingya and the Rakhine: There is only one physician per 140,000 Rohingya, but in the parts of Rakhine state dominated by the Rakhine, there is one doctor per 681 people. Acute malnutrition affects 26 percent of people in the Rohingya-dominated area of northern Rakhine state, whereas the figure is just 14 percent in Rakhine-dominated areas, and so on.

If the Rohingya give up on any prospects of change from this new NLD government — and well they might — then they will probably take to the boats again, as they did last year, fleeing in the thousands to other Muslim countries in South-East Asia. They will risk drowning in flimsy craft provided by unscrupulous human traffickers, and the crisis will merely spread abroad once again.

What can be done? Since there is no domestic imperative to help the Rohingya, it’s up to countries like the United States and Britain to exert all the pressure that they can on Suu Kyi’s government over this issue. The Western powers have helped enormously in rebuilding the NLD as a functioning political party, in providing Suu Kyi and her ministers with technical expertise and practical advice, and in beefing up the institutions, such as the national parliament, that have been at the fore of the democratic transition. Given this leverage, it must be made clear that the one million Rohingya are an essential part of that new democracy, and that even if they are not technically “citizens” under the present constitution (one which Suu Kyi herself rejects, albeit for different reasons) the government will be judged by how far it protects and gradually includes them. And even if the NLD balks at giving the Rohingya citizenship — as the United Nations, for one, has demanded — it could at least repeal repressive legislation passed by the last military government, such as the four so-called “Race and Religion Protection Laws.”

Passed in 2015, these laws were inspired by the nationalist, sectarian monks of the Ma Ba Tha movement, and are aimed squarely at restricting the personal freedom and choices of Burma’s Muslims. If enforced with any vigor, these laws could provoke even more tension, especially between the Rakhine and Rohingya. The NLD stood against these laws when it was in opposition. Now it is in power, the party should repeal them, sending a clear signal that the new government is genuinely concerned with the human and civil rights of all those who live in the country, and that the Rohingya are part of the wider reform process.

But the country’s other minority ethnic groups, as do the Rohingya themselves, also have a role to play. The latter have long been isolated from their fellow minorities, politically as much as geographically, and this has added to their marginalization. Although the plight of the Rohingya is now well advertised outside Burma, little is known about them in their own country. Rather than investing all their hopes for change in the international community, the Rohingya should now take the initiative to build bridges with the Kachin, Karen, Mon, and others, who have also suffered at the hands of the Burman-dominated central governments, to strengthen their political position and to make their case more visible.

It is in their interest of these other groups to overcome their own prejudices against the Rohingya, as the latter bring considerable international goodwill, diplomatic support, and potentially money, to the negotiating table. As much good as the international community can do, real change will not come until the political dynamics of the Rohingya issue change within Burma itself.

In the photo, a Rohingya woman sits with her children in their temporary shelter next to the Baw Du Pha internal displacement camp on May 17 in Sittwe, Burma.

Photo credit: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Richard Cockett is former Southeast Asia bureau chief for The Economist and the author of Blood, Dream and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma (Yale University Press, 2015).

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