What will Aung San Suu Kyi do about the Rohingyas?

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.Photo: Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Having taken on the all-powerful position of State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi faces the unenviable task of dealing with Myanmar’s massive challenges – but no other issue is likely to damage her most as that concerning the Rohingyas minority group in the country.

Ms Suu Kyi has had to deal with issues from balancing China’s influence with others, and with urgently needed economic development. Myanmar’s infrastructure, from its roads to the lack of ATM facilities, falls far behind its stunning growth rates, at a time that the global economy is slowing down.

The conflict that the government faces with ethnic rebel groups around the country, and the delicate truces between them, is another major worry. It remains to be seen what kind of working relationship Ms Suu Kyi can have with those rebel groups, without being seen to be betraying her country’s territorial integrity.

Moreover, Ms Suu Kyi has to tackle all these but having the country’s military rulers breathing down her neck. The generals of Myanmar still hold on to a number of key levers of power, which leave Ms Suu Kyi and her new government in a vulnerable position.

But it is the issue of the Rohingyas – and her lack of response on their plight – that will completely undo her reputation as the Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of human rights.

That in itself may not rock her support base within Myanmar. But in losing her international reputation and the resultant support, Ms Suu Kyi stands to lose the bulwark of her political strength and allure, which are nevertheless key to her appeal in Myanmar.

Ms Suu Kyi’s critics: astoundingly naïve about Myanmar politics?

For sure, critics of Ms Suu Kyi that accuse her of being silent on the plight of the Rohingyas, or those who go as far as to speak of a “dark side” of hers, are asking too much of her. She and her National League for Democracy (NLD) cannot afford to be attacked at a sensitive time of transition to power in Myanmar. Those who do so are certainly not malicious, but are probably astoundingly naïve about the perils of politics in Myanmar.

Then again, perhaps these critics have judged that with the NLD’s stunning landslide victory in the November 2015 general election, and having since taken power as the new government of Myanmar, it is therefore timely to prod the NLD towards the right path, and not pander further to populism or nationalism.

More likely, these critics would have to understand the complex situation of Buddhist nationalism that rails against the “Bangladeshis”, as the Rohingyas are derrogatorily referred to by many Burmese. Then there is also a virulent brand of extremist Buddhist nationalism, which is frankly out of the control of Ms Suu Kyi.

Extremist Buddhist nationalism and the Rohingyas

The Myanmar government vehemently denies the existence of a Rohingya ethnicity, referring to the group in official documents as “Bengali” or “Bangladeshis”. Myanmar’s Citizenship Law of 1982 does not recognise the Rohingya people as belonging to Myanmar, and they were therefore rendered stateless.

The belief among most Burmese is that all Rohingya people are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though records indicate that Rohingya families have been living in Myanmar for centuries The Rohingya people live mostly in Rakhine State, a crescent of land sited along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, and borders Bangladesh to the north.

Extremist movements such as 969, which is driven by Ashin Wirathu, an influential Buddhist monk who holds militant views and who calls himself the “Burmese Bin Laden”, he has been blamed for stoking religious hatred throughout Myanmar.

Other such movements include Ma Ba Tha, the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, who describe themselves as the defenders of the interests of the Buddhist majority Myanmar.

There is also the identification of the Rohingyas with Islamist terrorism around the world, although no such terrorist attacks have affected Myanmar as in Indonesia recently.

When pressed to speak out on the issue of the Rohingyas such as during the Buddhist-Muslim clashes that swept through Myanmar in 2013, she simply explained that any statement she made would only serve to fuel tensions between and the Rohingya.

It is more plausible that she and the NLD feared losing the electoral support of the country’s Buddhist-Burmese majority at a time she needed it most.

The biggest bulwark of Ms Suu Kyi, in the international sphere – her credentials as a defender of human rights and her international supporters – could turn against her to become her biggest foe. This may sound inconceivable at the present time, but not impossible further down the line. But with greater power comes greater responsibilities, naturally. Ms Suu Kyi and her NLD would nevertheless do well not be immune to criticism on the Rohingya issue.