Ethnic violence in Burma tests Aung San Suu Kyi – RTÉ World Report

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After spending fifteen years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is now an elected MP in Burma’s parliament, with her new-found freedoms, which included a short stop in Dublin in June, being seen by many as emblematic of Burma’s transition from harsh, capricious and opaque military rule to something better-bedded in rule-of-law, a phrase she frequently uses.

In her first major speech to Burma’s army-dominated parliament she called for better treatment of Burma’s ethnic minorities, some of whom have fought on-off rebellions against central rule since independence from Britain after World War II.

Burma hasn’t had a census since 1983, but estimated put the majority Burmans at around 60% of the population, with the rest broken up between groups such as Karen, Mon, Shan, Chin and others, with homelands in Burma’s border areas close to Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand.

In June 2011 a 17 year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army, based in Burma’s far north, the homeland of 1 million mostly-Baptist Kachin, broke down and fighting continues with 70,000 homeless.

Visiting there are in February, Kachin rebels told me they respected and admired Aung San Suu Kyi, but wondered whether she fully understood the aspirations of Burma’s ethnic minorities.

Her recent parliament address might have alleviated some of the Kachin concerns, but trouble in the other end of the country has led to questions about Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment to ethnic rights.

Sectarian fighting in western Burma’s Arakan state, where Buddhist Arakanese live uneasily alongside Muslim Rohingya, and where June fighting left unknown numbers of dead and around 100,000 displaced.

Aung San Suu Kyi has prompted disappointment among some of her supporters among human rights groups in the West by failing to speak out strongly enough against discrimination against the 1 million Rohingya, who the Burmese government regards as illegal Bengali immigrants and who are denied basic citizenship rights in Burma.

Burma’s more relaxed freedom of speech has seen an upsurge in racist anti-Rohingya vitriol, including from former political prisoners and Burmese who fled overseas and received citizenship in Thailand, Canada and elsewhere, but nonetheless call for the expulsion of Rohingya from Burma.

Rohingya say they have been in what is now Burma since before British incursions in the 19th century, but many Burmese say they came as British labour during colonial rule.

Asked about the Rohingya during her June European tour, Suu Kyi said that she didn’t know of they were entitled to citizenship rights in Burma, saying that perhaps some of them were.

Prior to her June trip, she met with Burmese Muslim leaders in Rangoon, as the Arakan violence played put, But even her vague-sounding appeals for dialogue were met with hostility by Arakanese politicians I interviewed in Sittwe, the regional capital, who said that she had lost popularity there by not condemning the Rohingya outright.

Burma will hold national elections in 2015, and after her party’s stunning win in April by-elections, albeit for only 43 out of over 1000 seats at local, national and upper house levels of parliament, Suu Kyi would be overwhelming favourite to win any fair election in Burma and become the country’s next president.

So, could it be that the world-renowned symbol of noble resistance against tyranny, is putting party politics first, remaining non-committal on a human rights issue as she knows defending the Rohingya will surely dent her popularity among the majority of Burmese voters?

For World Report this is Simon Roughneen in Bangkok.

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