A recent massacre of Rohingya in Myanmar’s northwest has refocused international attention on inter-ethnic violence and minority rights in Myanmar.
It has also called attention to the limitations of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now being measured against the lofty ideals of her image.
According to government figures, over 60 were left dead in violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya. Numbering 800,000, the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, but have been denied citizenship since 1982.
Bangladesh has called on the international community to do more to help resolve the ongoing issue, claiming that it now must refuse asylum to Rohingya due to population and financial restraints.
Before Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest last year, questions remained regarding her stance on ethnically based conflict and oppression. Refugees, who were displaced by brutal military action, expressed uncertainty in their hopes that she would move to address their plight.
When conflict reignited, Suu Kyi undertook highly publicized international travel, her first venture from Myanmar in 24 years.
Suu Kyi’s minimal response was to encourage Buddhists to “have sympathy for minorities” – a request that has been met with anger from some in the Rakhine community, who regard the Rohingya as unwanted foreigners.
When asked whether the Rohingya should be granted Myanmar citizenship, Suu Kyi answered, “I don’t know”. Some have interpreted her comment as an awareness of the sensitive and divisive nature of the issue, and the new demand on her to appease her local political capital.
The response has also sparked dismay from those who had hoped for a more forthright defense of minority rights from the human rights icon.
Yet, in less politically charged circumstances, Suu Kyi has made efforts to promote the welfare of disenfranchised ethnic communities. Her visit to the Mae La refugee camp in June was accompanied by calls for the international community to continue financial support for displaced people on the Thai Burma border.
With greater liberty to speak, Suu Kyi now faces the challenge of meeting the high expectations of diverse communities with divergent interests. Concurrently, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party holds only 42 of 664 parliamentary seats, which is an indication of their power to effect policy change.
In conflicts stemming back 60 years, ceasefires and seemingly seismic shifts in ethnic army-government relations may be limited in changing conditions on the ground.
Representatives of Shan human rights and news reporting groups stated that ongoing distrust, disconnect between government agreements and military conduct, and a failure to resolve underlying issues were serious impediments to peace.
Even in the face of new and celebrated ceasefires, skirmishes, arrests and killings continue to be reported.
SWAN, a human rights organization, has recommended that intermational pressure on the Burmese government continue. Suu Kyi has encouraged continued international aid to Burmese refugees, with NGOs noting that circumstances have not changed so as to allow asylum seekers to return to their homes.
Though much has changed, it appears that the government and military still dominate the marginalized of Burma.