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Myanmar’s Ethnic Violence: Where Is Suu Kyi?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 28, 2012

People collect pieces of metal from the rubble of a neighborhood in Pauktaw township in Rakhine State, Myanmar that was burned in recent violence October 27, 2012. People collect pieces of metal from the rubble of a neighborhood in Pauktaw township in Rakhine State, Myanmar that was burned in recent violence October 27, 2012 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past week, violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar, has flared up badly once again. According to reports in local media and the news wires, over the past seven days at least sixty —and as many as one hundred— people have been killed in clashes. The local security forces allegedly have been firing on some crowds, and other reports suggest that the refugee camps set up for Muslims in the area have already become so overcrowded that they can no longer hold new arrivals.

The cause of the new violence is very murky, with reports and rumors suggesting that some local activists, or even the security forces, have been triggering the clashes in order to lead to a crackdown on Muslims. Other reports suggest that some local fights between young men sparked the violence.

But amidst the murkiness and the chaos, a larger question has arisen: Who in Myanmar’s leadership is going to take a serious, progressive approach to solving this ethnic tension? Though President Thein Sein has passed laudable economic and political reforms, his government has been mostly silent on the violence in Rakhine state, refusing to allow the Organization of the Islamic Conference to open offices to help investigate and potentially resolve the violence. It remains unclear whether the security forces are directly involved in the violence, and whether Thein Sein has tried to restrain local commanders, or even has total control over them.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been nearly as quiet, alas. Throughout the violence in Rakhine State, which has gone on for months now, Suu Kyi has said almost nothing, even as other leading members of her party have issued harsh, anti-Muslim statements. During her recent trip to the United States, Suu Kyi mostly dodged questions about the violence, and she has been vilified by some Muslim leaders in Myanmar for her silence. To be sure, Suu Kyi is trying to make the shift from opposition leader and symbol to parliamentary leader and party leader, and backing rights for Muslims in Rakhine State is not popular among the Burman majority, many of whom back the National League for Democracy (NLD). And yet if Suu Kyi and her party were to be in power, running the government, they would need a real plan to reduce violence in Rakhine State, deal with the power of local commanders on the ground, and restrain the security forces. Thus the violence is not only an issue of rights —which Suu Kyi in the past paid great lip service to— but also of making coherent policy for the future, policy that at least calms the situation in Rakhine State and allows for some greater aid to flow in to refugees. Failing to make any real statement on the crisis seems a poor choice morally for Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership but also a sign of their great gap in policy experience.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by WN

    Joshua, mind you ASSK is not governing the country. Unless you are a citizen of this country you would fully understand the situation. Please urge quasi-civilian government of former army generals to resovle the issue peacefully or you may offer your kind advise on how to do it right. Please shoot the right target not the one which is vaguely taking shape. ASSK is still walking the mist, very delicate path. Hope all human rights people understand that.

    Note: I am not NLD member nor ASSK supporter.
    P.S. I like most of your articles!

  • Posted by Mrat Linn

    you know, guy ! Suu Kyi and her party are not the government directly responsible for the violence in the western state of Myanmar. Criticism and condemnation are not the solution of the cause of the problem; nor beneficial to both sides, Rakhine Buddhists and Bagali Muslims and even NLD.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Lets put it in context. Suu Kyi is facing a problem which democratic leaders face regularly in heterogeneous societies. To win elections, they need majority of population on their side so speaking for minority rights can cost elections. Can anybody remember US Presidents (or governors) standing up for African-American rights between Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras? F. D. Roosevelt might be the greatest defender of human rights, freedom and democracy in 20th century but don’t ask Japanese Americans about his commitment to human rights.

    So its not easy for Suu Kyi but then we have a much higher expectations for Suu Kyi. She KNOWS suffering and doesn’t need to prove herself to the Burmese people.

  • Posted by Shwe Yoe

    Both President and ASSK are working for Democracy for Burmese Buddhists.Not for Myanmar.

  • Posted by Craig D.

    When you say that the violence is between Buddhists and Muslims, you are implying that this is the main cause of the communal disturbances. But this is not the case, any more than the violence in Northern Ireland some years ago was between Catholicism and Protestantism.

    Suu Kyi has articulated a policy which is frankly no different from what Western leaders have been expressing. William Hague yesterday spoke of his serious concerns, but did not once mention ‘Rohingyas’, ‘Buddhists’ or ‘Muslims’. Same with Suu Kyi. She wants to see the status of Burmese Muslims settled by nationality laws which meet international standards.

    Whatever NLD officials may have said in the recent past, they are now much more cautious. When the dissident Zarganar expresses his frustration with residents in Rakhine Division for not helping the Inquiry team of which he is a member, you can guess that there are seriously deep-rooted problems. These cannot be resolved by Suu Kyi simply taking sides with the Muslims, as most Muslims in Myanmar seem to recognise, though not outside.

  • Posted by YIYI AYE KLINE

    TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
    ANY ONE, EACH AND EVERY ONE , LET PUT YOURSELF IN THE LADY DAW AUNG SAN SUU KYI, THE GREAT LEADER DO EVERY SINGLE MOVEMENT IN WISELY, CAUTIOUSLY, WITH EXECUTIVE CRITICAL DECISION TO BENEFIT FOR HER COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP. SHE NEVER THOUGHT OF TAKEN ADVANTAGE FROM POLITICAL REVIEW.
    THE LADY DAW AUNG SAN SUU KYI DO ALL HER BEST KNOWLEDGE FROM HER HEART WHICH IS BURMA AND BURMESE FELLOW CITIZENS WHETHER YOU ARE CHRISTIAN, MUSLIM, HINDHU OR BUDDHIST.
    ASK YOURSELF WHAT HAVE YOU DONE GREAT JOB FOR YOUR OWN FAMILY, HOW GREAT YOU WAS DOING FOR YOUR PARENTS, HOW MUCH RESPONSIBLE YOU HAVE BEEN TAKEN CARE FOR YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTER, WHAT KINDS OF JOB YOU DO GREAT ABOUT YOUR NATIVE TOWN.
    I BELIEVED WHETHER YOU LIVE IN BURMA OR OVERSEA YOU DO KNOW ABOUT WHAT IS A MEANINGFUL OF FREEDOM, UNITY, RESPECT, CAUTIOUS,.
    PLEASE DON’T INSULT TO OTHERS ESPECIALLY THE LADY DAW AUNG SAN SUU KYI.

  • Posted by kyawmg

    Daw Su is keeping silent because she has no choice. She is the one supported by almost the whole country but only a wrong step (taking side with muslim bengali or sympathetic to those illegal immigrants), she will lose all her prestige and support in the country. That is the reason.

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