During her recent trip to India, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited her alma mater the Lady Sri Ram College, where activists protesting the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are reported to have told Ms. Suu Kyi “to come out of her cocoon and take a stand on the Rohingya issue.” Some political analysts have described the Rohingya issue as a test of Suu Kyi’s ‘credentials and commitment’, her Buddhist faith and even as the true proof of her being worthy of the Nobel Peace prize . It is time to take a step back and look at Myanmar, take in the big picture and focus on Suu Kyi and the challenges that confront her.
Ms Suu Kyi today, is a popular leader of Myanmar. After winning 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats contested in the by-elections held in April this year, she is expected to gain control of the government after the elections scheduled for 2015; about three years from now. The world has been delighted to see Ms. Suu Kyi in the Myanmar parliament. She is an international symbol of courage and non-violent opposition to the military rule, having struggled bravely for human rights and political freedom while under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 20 July 1989 until her most recent release on 13 November 2010.
US president Obama, during his first trip abroad post re-election remarked in Bangkok last week, “Democratic transition in Burma is an ongoing process and the process needs to be in the spotlight.” Ms. Suu Kyi idolized by her people and the world, has what it takes to leverage this attention and bring about real and lasting change in Myanmar.
However, Ms. Suu Kyi cannot assume that her overwhelming popularity in Myanmar today will remain intact over the next few years and see her through to the elections in 2015. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), needs to have a clear understanding of the country’s priorities and come to grips with these issues at the earliest. Ms. Suu Kyi, on the other hand, will have to evolve from being a resistance icon to a national leader; a challenging prospect.
According to the International Crisis Group, ethnically, Myanmar is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Consequently, since independence it has experienced a complex set of conflicts between the central government and ethnic minority groups seeking autonomy. Ethnic minorities constitute about one-third of the population and occupy roughly half of the country in terms of area. At present, despite almost all ethnic groups having accepted the Union of Myanmar and their demands being limited to increased local authority and equality within the federal state structure, the country is not beyond strife.
UNHRC data indicates that there are 777,859 refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs of Myanmar- origin displaced to its neighbours. There are a further 1,147,275 persons including 808,075 stateless persons within the country itself. The Myanmar refugee population in India is mainly from the Chin ethnic minority group, with a smaller proportion of Kachins, Rakhines, and Bamars.
Over 140,000 Myanmarese, mostly Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan, among others are presently confined in camps in Thailand. Many have been displaced since the mid-1980s. In addition, there are probably at least 300,000 refugees outside these Camps in Thailand, including 250,000 Shan refugees. Suu Kyi has visited Mae La refugee camp on the Thai border, telling thousands of people that their plight has not been forgotten. She has also visited the town of Mahachai, outside Bangkok, home to Thailand’s largest population of Myanmar migrants.
It is in this country, torn by internal conflict and racked by armed ethnic insurgencies of various scales and intensities that Suu Kyi is trying to make the shift from opposition leader to a party, parliamentary and a national leader. Further as a Member of Parliament, Suu Kyi is now carries the cross of being part of Myanmar’s state establishment. Suu Kyi alone cannot solve the complex ethnic problems of Myanmar that have existed for decades. Her ultimate challenge will be to keep the country unified while addressing the demands of the minorities.
She has also to revitalise the grass root-level infrastructure of her party, the NLD. She has to find common grounds with the Military that would support the necessary amendments to the present Constitution without which she cannot assume leadership in the Myanmar.
Suu Kyi’s stance on the Rohingya issue has been influenced by three key factors: the public opinion in her own constituency, the collective view of her party, and the mainstream opinion in Myanmar. Incidentally her constituency, the rural township of Kawhmu, is known to have an extremely anti-Rohingya stance. Yet there is a requirement of articulating a coherent policy for the future, policy that diffuses the situation in Rakhine State and allows for humanitarian aid to flow in to refugees.
Staying on the Rohingya issue, Suu Kyi in one of her interviews to the media in New Delhi made three important points. One, the immediate step is for the violence to stop, effect de-escalation of the situation and allow access to humanitarian aid. Second, both communities have resorted to violence hence restrain has to be exercised by all stakeholders. Rhetoric and provocation has not helped either side. Third, was regarding the responsibility of Bangladesh on the issue.
A Danish Immigration Service fact finding mission in 2011 found that the Bangladesh government was concerned about the ‘pull factor’ related to the Rohingya’s exodus to Bangladesh. This was the reason the government did not want to provide support to development activities aimed at improving the living conditions of the Rohingya. A Joint Initiative by five UN agencies to develop for Cox’s Bazar, a two-year, $33 million development plan to strengthen education, health, livelihood ect could not get the Bangladesh Government’s approval. If Pakistan and Iran were to adopt a similar position on Afghan refugees, their plight would have been akin to the Rohingyas.
Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the Rohingya struggle at this stage will not get the Rohingyas what they want but for Suu Kyi anything more than a balanced stance on the Rohingya issue will definitely impact her position adversely in 2015. So let’s be fair and grant ‘Daw Suu’ some political manoeuvre space and her rightful place in Myanmar history.
This article appeared at South Asia Monitor and is reprinted with permission.