Clashes in western Myanmar involving Muslim Rohingyas are giving opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi one of her first political tests since an April by-election win that prompted Western nations to ease sanctions.
The fighting near the Bangladesh border claimed dozens of lives this month and highlighted the plight of Rohingyas who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and restricted from traveling freely. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest and is making her first trip to Europe since 1988, declined to say whether they should be granted citizenship.
“A very broad segment of people in Myanmar are stridently anti-Rohingya,” Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said by phone. “We’re seeing her heed very ugly political realities in Myanmar by being so cautious.”
Suu Kyi, who landed in Geneva two days ago, will tomorrow accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991 on a trip that will include an appearance with U2 singer Bono in Dublin and an address to the U.K. Parliament. Calm has returned to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where President Thein Sein declared an emergency, after six days of violence killed 29 people and displaced more than 30,000, the Associated Press reported.
“We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them,” Suu Kyi told reporters in Geneva yesterday when asked if Rohingyas should be granted Myanmar citizenship. “All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.”
The clashes highlight the difficulty in unifying the country of 64 million people comprised of 135 official ethnic groups, a list that doesn’t include Rohingyas. Thein Sein’s moves to allow greater political freedom since his 2010 election win has attracted companies that avoided the country during about five decades of military rule.
Coca-Cola Co. (KO) announced yesterday it would restart operations in Myanmar after 60 years, weeks after the U.S. and European Union suspended sanctions following Suu Kyi’s election to parliament. Suu Kyi, 66, told the United Nations labor organization yesterday that she welcomed investments that help promote democracy.
The rioting is near offshore energy projects in Rakhine state, the starting point of oil and gas pipelines to Yunnan province being built by China National Petroleum Corp. A “high risk” remains that communal violence will spread to other parts of the country, according to a statement by Exclusive Analysis, a London-based political risk firm.
“More widespread violence would risk damaging international investor confidence in Myanmar and would also likely create spill-over humanitarian problems in neighboring Bangladesh,” according to a statement issued yesterday.
Bangladesh has turned away hundreds of Rohingyas fleeing the violence, dismissing calls from the UN refugee agency to open its borders to those who need medical attention and safety. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told reporters on June 12 that allowing a large influx of refugees “is certainly not in the best of our interests.”
Rohingyas descend from a mix of Rakhine Buddhists, Chittagonian Bengalis and Arabic sea traders, and speak a dialect of Bengali that is distinct from the form of the language spoken in Bangladesh, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
They co-existed with Rakhine Buddhists for centuries before the British demarcation of the border between India and Myanmar left them caught between states, the group said in a 2009 report. About 800,000 Rohingyas live in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and 200,000 are in Bangladesh, the group estimates.
“One of the greatest problems comes from the fear on both sides of the border, that is to say Bangladesh as well as Burma, that there will be illegal immigrants crossing all the time,” Suu Kyi said yesterday, referring to her country by its former name. “This is due to the porous border. We need more responsible, uncorrupt border vigilance.”
In 2009, after reports that Thai authorities turned away hundreds of Rohingyas fleeing in boats, Ye Myint Aung, then Myanmar’s Hong Kong consul-general, wrote a letter to newspapers and diplomats calling them “ugly as ogres.”
“Rohingya are neither ‘Myanmar People’ nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” the letter said. “You will see in the photos that their complexion is ‘dark brown.’ The complexion of Myanmar people is fair and soft, good looking as well.”
Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who led student protesters in 1988, told reporters this week that illegal immigrants from Bangladesh were responsible for the violence. Myanmar took them in based on sympathy and should not be expected to automatically grant them citizenship, he said.
“If we are forced to relax our citizenship rules and process and to deal with them unmindfully, we won’t tolerate it at all,” he said.
Bangladesh saw influxes of about 250,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 1978 and in the early 1990s, followed by repatriation efforts “that were not wholly voluntary,” the UNHCR said in a December report. The U.S. State Department said in 2010 that designated terrorist organization Harakat ul-Jihad- i-Islami/Bangladesh “had trained and fielded operatives in Burma to fight on behalf of the Rohingya.” Bangladesh banned the group in 2005, the report said.
Last year, Eric Schwartz, a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called Rohingyas he visited in Bangladesh refugee camps “victims guilty of nothing other than a desire to flee repression and create a better life for themselves.” Clinton said on June 11 Rohingyas should be included in talks to halt the violence.
U.S. Charge D’Affaires Michael Thurston urged all sides to remain calm after meeting today with representatives of Muslim organizations and the Rakhine National Development Party in the former capital of Yangon, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported.
The latest unrest began after an alleged rape and murder of a girl prompted a mob of about 300 Rakhine Buddhists to murder 10 Muslims on June 3, according to Human Rights Watch. Myanmar imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in four towns in Rakhine and prohibited more than five people from gathering in public areas at a time, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
The fighting left 13 Rakhine Buddhists and 16 Rohingya Muslims dead, AP reported yesterday, citing government officials led by Rakhine state minister for border affairs Col. Htein Lin. Nine Buddhist monasteries and seven mosques were also burned, the report said.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 43 of 44 by-election seats it contested on April 1, giving it some representation in the 664-member parliament still dominated by Thein Sein and the military. The next nationwide election is scheduled for 2015.
Suu Kyi’s emphasis on the rule of law “is probably the best way to go” given her “risky position,” Sai Latt, a Burmese-Canadian doctoral student at Canada’s Simon Fraser University who studies state violence and displacement, said by phone. “If she says something that appears to be supporting the ethnic rights or the ethnic status of the Rohingya, a lot of people -- her supporters -- will turn against her.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org