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Myanmar unrest tests iconic status of Suu Kyi

AFP © Myanmar unrest tests iconic status of Suu Kyi

AFP News:

April, 21, 2013
BANGKOK (AFP) –
Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn attacks on Muslims in Myanmar has dimmed
the Nobel laureate’s lustre among global rights campaigners, but observers say
her reticence will do her no harm with voters.
Nearly a month
after religious riots killed 43 people in central Myanmar, the former political
prisoner turned lawmaker finally voiced sympathy for Muslims targeted by
violence that saw mosques and homes razed.
But Suu Kyi again
failed to clearly condemn attacks against Muslims — who represent an estimated
four percent of the population — or hate speech by some extremist Buddhist
monks.
Instead, as in 2012
when two waves of violence between the stateless Rohingya Muslims and ethnic
Rakhine Buddhists caused more than 180 deaths in the west, the opposition
leader more indirectly urged respect for the “rule of law”.
“They did not
feel they belonged anywhere else and you are just sad for them that they are
made to feel they did not belong to our country either,” she said of
Myanmar’s Muslims last week during a visit to Japan.
But Suu Kyi, who
won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and endured years of house arrest, defended
the restrained nature of her remarks and said: “I am sorry if people do
not find my comments interesting enough to acknowledge them.”
Rights groups say
her comments, delivered late and without criticism of the perpetrators of
violence, sit uncomfortably with her position as a democracy champion who led a
long fight against Myanmar’s former military junta.
“I’m glad she
is in some ways recognising that these people are facing a very, very difficult
situation” but “there has to be more than just her feeling sad,”
said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
“The burden of
action here lies with the government, but she is not an ordinary opposition
leader either… and this is where some of this moral authority built up over
the years needs to be used,” he added.
For their part
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities harbour suspicions of the Burman majority group —
including Suu Kyi — and complain that discrimination endures under Myanmar’s
civilian-led reformist government.
The Rohingya in
particular feel let down by Suu Kyi.
Some 800,000 of the
minority group, considered by the UN as one of the most persecuted in the
world, live in Rakhine State where tens of thousands of people were displaced
by the violence last year and still languish in makeshift camps.
Human Rights Watch
has accused security forces of allowing and in some cases leading assaults against
the Rohingya.
Abu Tahay from the
National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the Rohingya, said
Suu Kyi has an “obligation” to intervene given her status as daughter
of independence hero Aung San and a “democratic icon”.
Yet he stepped back
from openly criticising the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD)
— which is tipped to win general elections in 2015 that could install Suu Kyi
as Myanmar’s president.
Suu Kyi’s core
constituency in the dominant Burman population sees the Rohingya as worthless
illegal immigrants, and any offers of support may haunt her at the elections.
“Aung San Suu
Kyi has an election to win in 2015. She risks alienating politically potent
Buddhist elements among her own supporters if she appears too cosy with the
Rohingya, or other Muslims,” said Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian
National University.
“Western human
rights activists and international opponents of anti-Islamic prejudice will not
have a vote in who runs Myanmar in the years ahead,” he said.
More immediately,
“The Lady” does not want to fuel ethnic and religious tensions as the
country undergoes its transition from junta rule, according to Win Tin,
co-founder of the NLD.
“There was
some damage to her moral authority because of this situation. Daw Suu also
knows about it,” he told AFP, using a Burmese honorific, adding that her
caution recognises “things are very fragile politically”.
Foreign observers
need to take a more realistic view of the democracy leader, a senior diplomat
formerly posted to Myanmar told AFP.
Critics “need
to consider whether their disappointment is a consequence of attributing
near-sainthood and infallibility to her during her years under house
arrest”, the diplomat said, requesting anonymity.
But Chris Lewa, the
Bangkok-based director of The Arakan Project, which lobbies for Rohingya
rights, said Suu Kyi was failing a vital test of leadership.
“She talks a
lot about the rule of law, but that is not enough,” she said.