Will Aung San Suu Kyi break her silence on Burma’s Rohingya crisis?
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Will Aung San Suu Kyi break her silence on Burma’s Rohingya crisis?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party appears to have finally shown some support for the nation’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims after years of ignoring their plight.

According to a report in the Independent, NLD spokesman U Nyan Win said: “The problem needs to be solved by the law. The law needs to be amended. After one or two generations [of residence] they should have the right to be citizens.”

This is in marked contrast to what Suu Kyi and the NLD have previously said on the Rohingya situation.

Suu Kyi has never spoken up for the Rohingya. When pressured to do so she has refused to condemn either the Rakhine Buddhists or the security forces for the violence that erupted in Rakhine State in recent years. Instead she pointed out that there had been violence from both Buddhists and Rohingyas and she has preferred to talk about the rule of law and non-violence rather than criticising the way the Rohingya have been treated.

Activists have criticised her for this stance. Chris Lewa of the Rohingya advocacy group The Arakan Project said: “Silence is not remaining neutral. It’s giving a green light to those who want violence, keeping this climate of impunity and insecurity.”

In a 2013 report Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth was also critical of Suu Kyi’s stance. He said: “The world was apparently mistaken to assume that as a revered victim of rights abuse she would also be a principled defender of rights.”

It is not just Suu Kyi who has remained silent. The NLD has not spoken out for the Rohingya and at times has seemed to condone behaviour that would worsen their plight.

The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which recognises the 135 national races in Burma but explicitly omits the Rohingya, has been used as justification to deny the Rohingya citizenship and rights. When the NLD was asked in 2012 whether the law should be changed an NLD spokesman told DVB that it was up to the national parliament to decide whether the citizenship law should be repealed.

More recently, in January of this year, NLD MP Daw Khin San Hlaing submitted a proposal to parliament to exclude temporary citizens, also known as white card holders because of the colour of their ID cards, from voting in the constitutional referendum.

There are about 1.5 million white card holders and most of them are Rohingyas.

The reason Daw Khin San Hlaing gave for submitting the proposal was that under amendments made to the Political Parties Registration Law last year white card holders should not be allowed to vote in the constitutional referendum.

She conveniently ignored the fact that the amendments she was referring to had been drawn up by the Rakhine National Party who do not want the Rohingya to be allowed to take part in politics and regard them as illegal ‘Bengali’ immigrants.

Since then the government declared that all white cards would expire on March 31 and should be handed back before May 31. After white card holders have handed back their cards they will, at a later date, have to go through a ‘citizen verification’ process before they are issued with new identity documents.

Many Rohingya have refused to give up their white cards because they are worried that once they give up their only form of ID it will be far easier for the government to force them out of the country.

In his report Kenneth Roth gave reasons why Suu Kyi has not defended the Rohingya. He said of her: “Because the vulnerable and stateless Rohingya are so unpopular in Burma, she has refused to come to their verbal defense as they have been violently attacked. The Nobel laureate defends her stance by saying that she was always a politician and remains so.”

It is clear that the Rohingya are unpopular with many people who could potentially vote for the NLD and if the NLD were to openly support the Rohingya they may well lose votes. The rise in popularity of the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Wirathu, his 969 movement and the Fundamental Buddhist Mar Bar Tha goup (translation: the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion) has also stoked popular resentment against the Rohingya.

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Hardline Burmese monk Wirathu. Pic: AP.

Again, doubtless due to these groups’ popularity, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have not spoken out against them or Wirathu. Rather, they seem to prefer to placate them.

When the NLD information officer Htin Linn Oo spoke out against Buddhist fundamentalism and Ma Ba Tha the NLD removed him from his post following pressure from Ma Ba Tha. At present he is being prosecuted under Article 295(a) for ‘defaming religion’, and Article 298 for ‘hurting religious feelings’.

Many people will welcome this recent apparent about turn by the NLD, but, taking into account their past behaviour, it is not surprising that there are also many who are sceptical that Suu Kyi and the NLD will publically endorse Nyan Win’s statement.

Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK said: “We have to be cautious about this statement by Nyan Win. It was an off-the cuff remark rather than an official policy statement and we have seen NLD spokespeople being made to retract statements made in this way in the past. When it’s on NLD headed paper, we’ll know there really has been a policy change.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, was equally circumspect on hearing the news.

He said: “Nyan Win’s statement is a variation of the NLD’s standard formulation of asserting ‘rule of law’ as the cure-all to solve knotty problems, but it’s hopeful that they are at least considering the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya. He’s right that they are humans, and their rights need to be respected. But Aung San Suu Kyi still has the last word in that party, so she should clarify where she stands on this.”