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Suu Kyi's hollow words

By Editorial Board
Bangkok Post
July 8, 2016

Mob attacks against Rohingya Muslim communities and the burning of mosques in Myanmar's northern Kachin state and Bago Region in the past weeks remind many of us that there seems to be no end in sight for the chronic and terrifying anti-Muslim violence.

The violence is driven by Buddhist extremists against this minority group in our neighbouring country.

It is worse when those who fall prey to violence are marginalised people who are not entitled to any basic rights. In the latest incidents, security forces stood by and offered no protection.

Despite much hope being pinned on the National League for Democracy-led government, the ongoing violence against Rohingya demonstrates one fact: There is no difference between the Myanmar military regime and the civilian government under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on this matter.

Upon her election victory, Ms Suu Kyi pledged to prioritise the peace process and end the country's chronic ethnic conflicts. But, sadly, that priority and the peace effort under her leadership has so far excluded the Rohingya while including other ethnic groups. It should be noted that during her recent official visit to Thailand, Ms Suu Kyi succeeded in advocating for the rights of Myanmar migrant workers, a minority here. She however has been cautious in doing the same for the Rohingya -- a minority at home.

Having suffered persecution and discrimination for decades, the Rohingya have endured another round of bloodshed and violence in the predominantly Buddhist nation after tensions between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya erupted and boiled over in 2012. At least 200 Rohingya men, woman and children were killed and over 100,00 of them fled their homes to live in crowded camps.

Fleeing persecution at home by boat and trying to enter Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia via Thailand, tens of thousands of them have fallen prey to human traffickers, been killed at sea or forced to work under hellish conditions.

Upon her return from a 12-day trip to Myanmar last week, United Nations rights investigator Yanghee Lee warned that religious tensions remained pervasive and called for the government to end institutionalised discrimination against Muslim communities. She also asked the government to investigate the latest attacks and hold the perpetrators to account.

Ms Suu Kyi and her government should heed the call of the UN rights investigator. Practical measures to protect this minority from sporadic but prolonged violence and enforce the rule of law against perpetrators are urgently needed.

Meanwhile, long-term solutions to root out the anti-Muslim rhetoric and pave the way for granting the Rohingya basic rights including citizenship should be part of the government's priorities.

The government's recent effort to alternatively refer to Rohingya as "Muslim communities in Rakhine" has failed to keep the tension from boiling over. Buddhist nationalists, who brand the Rohingya as immigrants from Bangladesh, still find the term unacceptable.

While changing the public's hostile sentiment toward the Rohingya may take time, it is essential that the Myanmar government use laws to investigate the violence and prosecute the abusers. This will send out the key message that acts of violence will not be tolerated.

As a popular politician, Ms Suu Kyi should not only think about maintaining popular support. She must do more to end the widespread rights abuses and transform Myanmar into a more open-minded country that will ensure sustainable peace.

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