On the eve of a visit to the US to accept Washington’s highest honour, Aung San Suu Kyi faces accusations of ignoring the plight of Burma’s Rohingya minority. Photo: AFP
Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be awarded Washington’s highest honour next week amid criticism she has failed to speak up for almost one million persecuted Rohingya Muslims living in her country.
Ms Suu Kyi, 67, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal for enduring more than 20 years of personal denigration and 15 years of house arrest as she became the voice of Burma’s downtrodden.
But human rights groups and some academics have expressed disappointment the mother of two who took a seat in Burma’s military-dominated Parliament in July has dodged questions on the plight of the Rohingya, stateless people who are widely reviled by Burma’s Buddhist majority.
One Scottish academic has even suggested she return her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Ms Suu Kyi is likely to be pressed on her views about the Rohingya during her first trip to the US since she was put under house arrest by Burma’s generals in 1990.
But diplomats say she would face a backlash from Burmese Buddhists, including many of her own supporters, if she was to express support for the Rohingya.
Monks who had been long-time pro-democracy advocates took to the streets of Burma’s second largest city Mandalay for three days last week to demand the Rohingya be deported.
Since bloody clashes erupted between Rohingya and Arakan Buddhists in Burma’s western Arakan state in June – leaving an estimated 100,000 people displaced and at least 78 dead – Ms Suu Kyi has given only scripted answers about the bloodshed to journalists, referring to the need for a “rule of law”.
She has declined to say whether the Rohingya, who under a 1982 law are treated as non-citizens, should be granted citizenship.
The Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect and tend to have darker complexions than Burmese, are classified as immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in Burma for centuries.
They face restrictions on their movement, access to education and employment and are denied other basic rights.
Many would face possible starvation without the intervention of United Nations agencies.
Burma’s President Thein Sein, a former general who has won praise for introducing democratic reforms in his country, said in July the “only solution” is for the Rohingya to leave Burma.
“We will send them away if any third country would accept them,” he said.
Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya has prompted criticism from many Muslim groups and nations, including Malaysia and Indonesia.
A US delegation that returned on Monday from a two-day tour of areas of Arakan affected by the sectarian violence said it had “great concern” about the situation there.
“Broad swathes of both communities have been affected and the humanitarian situation remains of great concern,” said a statement from the US embassy in Rangoon.
Phil Robertson, who oversees the work of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said the international community rightly looks to Ms Suu Kyi as a beacon of light and moral authority in Burma.
“We encourage her to speak up and take a leadership role on the situation in Arakan,” he said.
About 300,000 Rohingya who have fled the Burma violence are living in Bangladesh, many of them in squalid camps where Bangladesh has restricted aid.
When the violence broke out in June, Bangladesh closed its border and pushed an unknown number of boats carrying men, women and children back out to sea, Human Rights Watch says. Their fate is unknown.
There are fears that when the monsoon season ends within weeks many Rohingya in Bangladesh will attempt dangerous voyages to Malaysia, where tens of thousands of them already there are waiting to be resettled in third countries like Australia.
Thailand has a policy to intercept boats carrying Rohingya at sea and provide them with fuel, water and food but not to allow them to land on its shores.
Thailand has previously towed Rohingya boats which have landed on its shores back out to sea, causing the deaths of hundreds of people.
Ms Suu Kyi leaves for the US on Sunday.