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Treatment of Rohingya remains a stain on Myanmar’s democracy

Rohingya refugee Jamalida Begum and her seven-year-old son Mohammad Ayaz at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Saiful Islam

By , The National

Two hoteliers, two different reactions to reports that hundreds, perhaps thousands of Muslims may have been killed by Myanmar’s troops in a purge nominally targeting extremists but seen by many as an exercise in ethnic cleansing.

On beautiful Lake Inle, an important feature of the country’s blossoming tourist trade, a Burmese assistant hotel manager giggled at mention of the Rohingya, stateless Muslims living close to the Bangladeshi border in Rakhine state. He then mimicked a man firing a machine gun.

In Rakhine, albeit nearly 400 kilometres from the area where killings have occurred, the European manager of a luxury beach hotel saw things differently.

“It is not the Muslims who are the problem, but the government,” he said while offering assurances that his guests were safe. “Even here, a completely normal Muslim guy I know has to get immigration clearance just to go to Yangon [Myanmar’s biggest city and formerly, as Rangoon, its capital].”

Myanmar says “fewer than 100 militants” have died in counterinsurgency operations following attacks on border posts last October. It disputes the larger estimates given by United Nations officials and denies allegations of atrocities against civilians. But the government’s actions have been condemned by human rights agencies, Pope Francis and near neighbours including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Nor is the treatment of the Rohingya the only example of the menace confronting Myanmar’s Muslim minority.

Just a few hours before I flew into Yangon, one of the country’s most prominent Muslim figures, Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the governing party, the National League for Democracy, was murdered at the same airport. The gunman opened fire outside the terminal building as Ko Ni held his grandson in his arms. Before being detained, he also killed a taxi driver who had given chase. Ko Ni had been outspoken in criticising the enormous power Mynamar army commanders still wield despite the vaunted transition to democracy, and had voiced concern about rising anti-Islamic sentiment. A second man, accused of hiring the gunman, has been arrested and while the motives remain to be established, self-proclaimed nationalists took to social media to acclaim the assassination.

The two wholly contrasting reactions from hoteliers reflect a classic national/international divide. Only depraved elements would welcome a cowardly assassination but many more regard the ruthless suppression of the Rohingya more as a necessary response to a terrorist threat than what the UN has called “crimes against humanity”.

And that is the point at which concerned outsiders begin to question the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the Myanmar government as state counsellor, effectively prime minister.

Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of independent Myanmar’s founding father, Aung San, is a remarkable woman who knows all about persecution. She was just 2 when her father was assassinated and she languished under house arrest for 15 years.

A host of international honours, including a Nobel peace prize, bear witness to her long and courageous struggle to rid her country of ruthless military misrule. She would almost certainly be Myanmar’s president but for a dubious law that puts the office out of reach to anyone with immediate family members who, like her late British husband, are or were foreign nationals.

Ms Suu Kyi’s rise to political power was internationally applauded as a triumph of good over evil. But she has shown no appetite for speaking out for the Rohingya.

Her approach may alarm human rights groups but mirrors the official view that the Rohingya are unwanted illegal immigrants. Yet there are 1.3 million of them and they have lived in Myanmar for generations. From where have they emigrated? The official answer is Bangladesh but most have never set foot there and Bangladesh does not want them either.

Ms Suu Kyi pays lip service to the decent treatment of all ethnic groups. “Democracy and human rights are inseparable,” she declared at an official dinner during my visit. “We cannot call it a democracy if it does not respect human rights.”

But these words sit uneasily with her refusal to defend a people tortured and killed, according to the Catholic pope, “simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith”. A government investigation is under way but critics are sceptical about the objectivity of its work.

No one doubts that the military places obstacles in her way. But unless the Rohingya people gain justice, the hopes and goodwill of the world, so evident when elections swept Ms Suu Kyi into office in 2015, may come to be remembered as little more than a broken dream.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National