Suu Kyi sidesteps Rohingya migrant crisis for political pragmatism

Suu Kyi sidesteps Rohingya migrant crisis for political pragmatism
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters during a rally at Mudon township at Mawlamyaing, Mon State on May 17, 2015.

MACNAMARA YANGON - Aung San Suu Kyi was once an unassailable champion of Myanmar's powerless. But the opposition leader's refusal to speak up for a persecuted Muslim minority at the heart of a migrant crisis has cast doubt over her moral force - and even earned a gentle rebuke from fellow Nobel laureate the Dalai Lama.

Images of hungry migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh hauled from vessels to Southeast Asian shores after months at sea have spurred calls for immediate humanitarian action to be matched by moves to address the root causes of the crisis.

Regional nations are gathering in Bangkok Friday to discuss both issues.

Attention has swung to one of the key departure points for the migrants, strife-torn Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where tens of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims live in dire displacement camps desperate to leave.

But as Myanmar's government wavers between offering some assistance to stricken migrants and denying any responsibility for their exodus, international rights groups looking for a moral beacon have found little support from Suu Kyi.

Her absence from the discussion has been so conspicuous that the Dalai Lama this week urged Suu Kyi to throw her weight behind the Rohingya.

"It's very sad. In the Burmese (Myanmar) case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something," he told Thursday's edition of The Australian newspaper.

The Buddhist spiritual leader said he recognised the difficulty of her position in a nation where expressing sympathy for the Muslim group brings ready condemnation.

"But in spite of that I feel she can do something," he added.

Suu Kyi spent more than 15 years locked up by the former junta for her tireless campaign for democracy in Myanmar.

Her personal sacrifice, which tore her from her young children and dying British husband, and eloquent pleas that the nation's long-suffering population should have "freedom from fear" won her a place among the world's most lauded peacemakers.

Yet since her release from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi's role has been recast from a defiant human rights defender to a hard-nosed political actor preparing to lead her opposition party into elections later this year.

The Nobel laureate "has been a huge disappointment in her continuous failure to stand up for human rights" in Myanmar, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

While Myanmar's government carries the main responsibility for the plight of the Rohingya in the country, Robertson lamented the veteran activist's failure to use her "moral authority" to press for a better deal for them.

'Speaking up not an option'

But just months away from the best chance of electoral victory of her political career, Suu Kyi faces pressure in the opposite direction, as public opinion inside Buddhist-majority Myanmar hardens against a Muslim minority widely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Her hardest task is to secure the amendment of a junta-scripted constitution from within an army-dominated legislature that currently bars her from the presidency.

Championing the Rohingya "would probably be the only situation where (Suu Kyi's party) would run the risk of not winning the elections ... speaking up is not an option for her at the moment," said Myanmar analyst Mael Raynaud.

The plight of the Rohingya, one of the world's most persecuted minorities, has worsened dramatically since 2012 when communal bloodshed left scores dead and some 140,000 people confined in miserable camps.

The violence triggered a wave of deadly anti-Muslim unrest in Myanmar and coincided with rising Buddhist nationalism that has further entrenched animosity towards the minority.

Hardline monks have promoted legislation seen as targeting Muslims including plans to introduce local family planning regulations and a move to withdraw "white card" identity documents mainly held by the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy says it is firmly against the controversial religious bills, which are seen as discriminatory to women and minorities.

Encircled by a hostile Buddhist majority, which also restricts their travel and work, the Rohingya have taken to boats in increasing numbers headed for Malaysia.

On May 19 Suu Kyi said Myanmar's "government has to solve the issue" in her only direct public comments on a crisis that has seen more than 3,500 migrants - Rohingya and Bangladeshi - arrive in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

However her spokesman was more forthcoming, telling AFP last week that the Rohingya were "entitled to human rights".

Against a backdrop of visceral hatred towards the Rohingya and looming polls, Suu Kyi must play an "intricate game of political chess", says Peter Popham, author of a biography of the opposition leader.

Caution and compromise have dominated her time in parliament, following a landslide win for her opposition in 2012 by-elections, as she waded into treacly domestic politics in a country struggling to rebuild after nearly half a century of neglect under the military.

But Popham said the implication in foreign media that she had failed to speak out was "to some extent unfair" citing speeches during international trips that highlighted problems in Rakhine "very prominently."

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