More than a year after Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in Burma’s first valid national election in a quarter century, the former political prisoner is looking increasingly aloof from her own history as a victim of human rights abuses.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority in the west of Burma, or Myanmar as it is officially called, is well known. Denied citizenship and regarded as Bengali immigrants, the Rohingya not only have been subject to decades of official discrimination but have been largely scorned and ostracized by most Burmese people.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal opinion on the Rohingya is unknown, she says little to the press these days, but since taking up her role as Burma’s de facto leader last year, she has done little to alleviate their plight — bar ask officials not to refer to them as “Bengali,” a term the Rohingya do not accept as it implies that they are immigrants from Bangladesh.
Life for Rohingya took a turn for the worse last October, after militants killed 9 policemen and made off with weapons from border posts on the Burma-Bangladesh frontier. There are reports linking the attack to Islamic State, though no hard proof. Army reprisals are ongoing in the region, which the media cannot access, and, after numerous first person accounts of the army killing men and boys and gang-raping women, more than 60,000 Rohingya are estimated to have fled into Bangladesh, where the government is doing its best to get Burma to take them back.
They are a people with nowhere to go, it seems.
On Friday, Yanghee Lee, a Korean academic who is the UN’s human rights envoy to Burma, said that she was concerned about reprisals against people she spoke with in Burma during her 12 day visit.
“I don’t know what will happen to me after our meeting,” was Lee’s recollection of one individual’s concerns.
Giving a press conference in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, two days ago, Lee said she found it hard to believe official denials of abuses such as the widespread burning of homes in Rohingya-populated areas close to Bangladesh.
The government has continued to rebut most allegations of abuse, with concession coming only after a soldier made a smartphone video himself and colleagues, selfie-style, kicking and beating dozens of Rohingya men in a village.
“For the Government to continue being defensive when allegations of serious human rights violations are persistently reported, that is when the Government appears less and less credible,” Lee said.
Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, was also in Burma over the weekend. He met his Burmese foreign minister counterpart Aung San Suu Kyi as well as members of a commission set up — in theory at least — to address conflict in Rakhine State in the west of the country, where most of the roughly 1 million Rohingya live.
Yesterday evening, while touring Rangoon’s shimmering golden Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the world’s biggest Buddhist temples, Johnson refused to take questions, telling me that “this is holy ground.”
Before arriving in Burma, Johnson put out a statement saying that “Burma’s transition to democracy is not yet complete” and that “many challenges remain” – but did niot mention the Rohingya or the many accounts given by refugees of army brutality.
As for Aung San Suu Kyi, long lauded in the West as a defiant icon of democracy during Burma’s decades of military dictatorship, there are still some who want to give her the benefit of the doubt, despite her apparent reluctance to protect the Rohingya.
Even after her November 2015 election win, Aung San Suu Kyi is still formally barred from the presidency. The army has a 25% bloc of parliament seats that enables it to block changes to constitution that would allow her assume highest office.
The army has the final say in how the Rohingya and other minorities are treated and sees the attack on the border posts as a justification for scorched earth tactics.
Yanghee Lee, the UN envoy, described Burma’s three army-controlled ministries as “three legs” hindering reform, and hinted that blame for Rohingya suffering could not laid solely at Aung San Suu Kyi’s door.
For World Report this is Simon Roughneen in RangoonShow