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Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi Skips Conflict-Torn State on Campaign Trail

A Muslim woman and her child in the Aung Mingalar Quarter of Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar. PHOTO: KAUNG HTET FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By Shibani Mahtani
July 2, 2015

The Rohingya minority has become a political tinderbox for democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi

SITTWE, Myanmar — As opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi makes her way across Myanmar, campaigning for her party ahead of this fall’s national election, she is noticeably skipping at least one state: Rakhine, home to the Rohingya Muslims at the center of Southeast Asia’s refugee crisis.

The Rohingya have become a political tinderbox for Ms. Suu Kyi. Outside Myanmar, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been denounced for not condemning the conditions that drove thousands of Rohingya to flee on human-trafficking boats.

But inside Buddhist-majority Myanmar—which is preparing to hold its freest elections in decades—Ms. Suu Kyi risks losing voter support if she appears too sympathetic to the Rohingya. That could deny her National League for Democracy party enough seats in parliament to shape Myanmar’s democratic future.

Already, some Buddhists here think she has shown too much support for the minority group.

“We in Rakhine state hate Aung San Suu Kyi,” said San Thar Aung, a Buddhist driver in Sittwe, the state’s capital. “She has spoken out too strongly for the Muslims, and blamed us unfairly.”

Such sentiments are echoed by some nationalist monks in other parts of Myanmar, who say Ms. Suu Kyi’s party would favor Muslims and other minorities at a time when explosive religious divisions are at a high.

San Shwe Tun, chairman for the NLD in Rakhine state, says Ms. Suu Kyi “has no plans” to visit the state, and the party is keeping local campaign activities to a minimum. “We are not strong here, because of [Ms. Suu Kyi’s] words on the conflict. She has said that the majority should not discriminate against the minority, and that has upset people,” Mr. San Shwe Tun said.

San Shwe Tun, chairman for the NLD in Rakhine state. PHOTO: KAUNG HTET FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The stakes are high for Ms. Suu Kyi, who at age 70 is an icon for democratic reform but who is barred from seeking the presidency in her home country. Last week, Myanmar’s parliament voted against a measure that would remove that constitutional restriction—a ban on anyone with foreign family members from becoming president. Ms. Suu Kyi has two foreign-born sons from her British husband, who died in 1999.

The NLD must win a majority of seats in parliament to form a government without resistance from military generals who, under the constitution, control a quarter of the parliamentary seats.

A big victory for her party could catapult Ms. Suu Kyi into other powerful positions besides the presidency, such as speaker of the House of Parliament, which carries huge sway over the legislature. And her party would be in a stronger position to force constitutional changes for a possible Suu Kyi presidency down the road.

Muslims pray at a shop in Sittwe. The religious minority has been pushed into squalid camps in Rakhine state since religious riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims three years ago. PHOTO: KAUNG HTET FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst, said Ms. Suu Kyi would bring further scrutiny to her views on the Rohingya if she even visited Rahkine.

But neither Ms. Suu Kyi nor her party have called for better treatment of the Rohingya—a subject Ms. Suu Kyi carefully avoids discussing at all on the campaign trail.

For the past three years, about 140,000 Muslims here have lived in squalid camps after deadly clashes broke out with Buddhists. Ms. Suu Kyi has declined to visit the camps, even as the Rohingya plight gained international attention with visits from philanthropist George Soros and actor Matt Dillon.

In fact, she isn’t known to have publicly used the word “Rohingya”—a controversial term in Myanmar, where many call the group “Bengalis” to cast them as foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh. In the rare instances she has addressed the subject, she speaks guardedly, saying she wouldn’t want to “aggravate the situation” by blaming one community, for example, or that “both sides”—Buddhists and Muslims—have been victims and victimizers.

She has also said that the clashes highlight the need for rule of law in Myanmar, something she has continued to push for as a politician.

The NLD hasn’t advocated for citizenship for the Rohingya, nor has it gone into specifics about what rights they should be entitled to.

But even couched remarks on the Rohingya, or simply the symbol of the NLD as defenders of human rights, are enough to anger Buddhists in Rakhine, said Mr. San Shwe Tun, the regional party head. People here “think the NLD represents the Muslims,” and party members have faced threats and harassment from local Buddhists, he said.

Myanmar’s government has been widely criticized for doing little to improve conditions for Muslims in Rakhine state.

Maung Maung Ohn, the chief minister of Rakhine state, said officials have started resettling Muslims displaced in Rakhine to better homes. But these new homes are temporary, he says, since Buddhist communities won’t accept Muslims being reintegrated into their communities. He encouraged Rohingya to adopt the government term “Bengali” as part of a program aimed at upgrading their citizenship status.

In the muddy camps and other Muslim areas across the state, however, few Muslims know the NLD or see Ms. Suu Kyi as a defender of their rights. Most voted for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which took control after general elections in 2010, because government officials promised them a clear path to citizenship. This year, the government revoked their voting rights amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

Violence and government policies have left the Rohingya without identification documents, freedom of movement, access to education or health care. As monsoon season approaches, the ghettoized districts and camps they live in are filling with knee-high water and mud. Muslims there who once were on track to getting college degrees are now left isolated, without the prospect of jobs.

“We don’t trust anyone in Myanmar to help us, not the government or the NLD,” said Sadek Hussain, 20. “Only the international community gives us hope.”


Public statements by Aung San Suu Kyi on the Rohingya issue

June and October 2012 Riots in Rakhine state leave nearly 100 dead and more than 140,000 displaced. When asked about the violence, Ms. Suu Kyi says it highlights the need for rule of law in the Myanmar
June 2013 Ms. Suu Kyi criticizes a proposed policy by local leaders in Rakhine to impose a two-child policy on Muslims. Buddhists in Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital, try to destroy the NLD party’s sign at its office there, party officials say.

October 2013 In a BBC interview, she says ‘both sides’ have been targeted by the violence, and that both Buddhists and Muslims are responsible.

June 2015 Thousands of Rohingya are abandoned by smugglers after fleeing Myanmar. The NLD releases a rare statement saying that the safety of migrants should be guaranteed and the problem of human trafficking addressed.

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