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Aung San Suu Kyi put to the test

May 20, 2016

Washington, it seems, is not fooled by developments in Burma. It has just announced a further easing of sanctions, but has kept in place bans on around 100 companies and individuals who are linked to the armed forces. Targeting the country’s military, who ruled ruthlessly for half a century, sends the message that Burma’s new democracy is still seen as being under threat.

The White House has been putting a positive spin on the new removal of sanctions on 10 state-owned companies involved in banking, lumber and natural resources. This has been done at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi, who although she is barred from holding the presidency is effectively the country’s leader. But “The Lady”, as the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is known affectionately by her supporters, has also been sent a message by Washington, which is that it considers the restoration of human rights in Burma to be still a work in progress. In particular, the Americans share the deep concerns of the Muslim world about the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, persecuted and made stateless by the fallen military junta.

Suu Kyi made little reference to the fate of the Rohingya and the country’s other Muslims during her electoral campaign, even though a key plank of her New Democracy Party’s campaign was respect for democratic freedom. At the time, her aides briefed that the subject was too delicate to form a specific part of her platform, but that she would address the issue as soon as the election was won. Well, the election was won in November and six months later the Rohingya are still waiting for that promised action. 

Suu Kyi’s people are now arguing that the issue cannot be taken in isolation. Burma has been plagued by rebellions among other minorities and there is a wider campaign to bring years of violence to an end. Last year, draft peace deals were signed with 16 rebel groups. These have to be worked through and made permanent. This is, however, to ignore one glaring truth.

The Rohingya never rebelled against anyone. It was they who were attacked by their neighbors egged on by fanatical Buddhist monks. The police and army stood by and did nothing while Rohingya Muslims were assaulted, robbed, murdered and raped. In an act of supreme cynicism, the military rulers then forced the victims into concentration camps “for their own protection”.

This brutality set in train a flood of refugees seeking to escape from persecution. The authorities quietly encouraged this tide of despair while profiting from the supply of rickety boats to carry the refugees out to sea.

Suu Kyi has an immediate solution at hand. The Rohingya, who have lived in Burma for generations, have been denied Burmese nationality. This exclusion has underpinned their appalling treatment. While she is still at the peak of her powers and popularity, Suu Kyi should recognize the Rohingya as Burmese citizens and grant them equality under Burmese law. Buddhist bigots will not like it and the military will mutter, but there is surely no better time than now to make this crucially important move. If Suu Kyi fails to act, then Washington should lead the international community in threatening a return of sanctions. The peace credentials of the widely-admired Nobel Laureate are being put to the test.

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