WHEN thousands of Rohingya people from Myanmar were discovered floating in boats on the south-east Asian seas much of the world was understandably gripped by this unfolding human tragedy.
Voices of anger were raised; something had to be done to end the suffering, to help those men, women and children in need.
But what has surprised some is the silence of the Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. After all, these are the poverty-stricken and disenfranchised refugees from her own country who are now the focus of greater attention than ever before.
The contrast could not be more striking: how could such an iconic figure of human rights be so reticent when it comes to defending an ethnic minority from her own country?
It was only at the urging of reporters on May 18 that a spokesman for her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), addressed the issue.
He said the Rohingya people should be entitled to human rights, while urging a solution that acknowledged their right to citizenship status.
But nothing has come directly from the party’s leader. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has previously justified her reluctance to speak out on the issue of the Rohingya, even when pressed to do so during Buddhist-Muslim clashes that swept through the country in 2013.
She feared that any statement she made would only fuel tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya, who make up about a third of the population of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh.
Now, a surge of Buddhist nationalism and the complex ethnic political ramifications for a country that has just started a transition to democracy are taking their toll on her international image.
In the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery in the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk-U, the difficulties faced by the opposition leader known as “the Lady” are illustrated by a senior monk who repeats what he says are the warnings of Ashin Wirathu, an influential monk based in Mandalay who calls himself the “Burmese Bin Laden” and has become a leading voice of a new generation of nationalists espousing the cause of the Bamar, the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar.
“They will come with swords, they will kill us,” the senior monk says of the Muslim “hordes” he sees encroaching on Burma.
“Muslims reproduce like rabbits; they want to kill us with swords; they want to conquer us — we have to defend ourselves and our religion,” he insists, explicitly identifying the Rohingya with Islamist terrorism around the world.
Extremist movements such as 969 , which is driven by Ashin Wirathu, and Ma Ba Tha — the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion — present themselves as defenders of the country’s interests and its Bamar soul against foreign influence in post-sanctions Myanmar. While insisting that he is against violence, Ashin Wirathu and those like him have fuelled and exploited tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, promoting the belief that Islam is penetrating the country to install Sharia law and leave Buddhists as a minority.
The nationalists are also trying to smear Aung San Suu Kyi by depicting her as “the Muslim lover”.
In a country that is 90 per cent Buddhist there is little sympathy to be found for the Rohingya cause, and expressing support could be political suicide for both the NLD and the military-backed ruling party less than six months before parliamentary elections.
A party source close to Aung San Suu Kyi, who asked not to be named, said the party leader was deeply upset over what was happening. But the source said she also understood the penalty for being seen as favouring Muslims and believed she needed to be in government to deal with the backlash.
There is a strong belief that powerful people with close links to radical monks are deliberately stirring up tensions between communities in an attempt to disrupt ongoing political reforms.
According to some observers, Aung San Suu Kyi and her strategists have decided that speaking up for the Rohingya may not be in their electoral interests.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and her strategists are looking at the electoral maths,” says Nicholas Farrelly, director of the Australian National University’s Myanmar Research Centre.
“They have long imagined that any perception the NLD is too cosy with the country’s Muslims could lose them millions of votes. That, at least, is the fear.
“They are anxious that the Rohingya could serve as a wedge between Aung San Suu Kyi and tens of millions of Buddhists that she is counting on for votes. It doesn’t help that many NLD members probably support harsh treatment for the Rohingya and feel no special compassion for them.”
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, which is headed by former generals, is in a similar situation. President Thein Sein’s success in bringing the country back into the international fold after decades of isolation is threatened by foreign coverage of the Rohingya boat crisis.
For days the government line was to resist diplomatic pressure and insist the root cause of the crisis was trafficking of migrants, not the persecution of a stateless people whose name, Rohingya, is not even officially recognised.
But on Tuesday official newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar reported on the crisis for the first time, in a further sign that the government is moderating its rejectionist position.
The daily quoted the information minister, Ye Htut, as telling foreign ambassadors that Myanmar would cooperate with regional and international counterparts “to tackle the ongoing boat people crisis, which is a consequence of human trafficking of people from Rakhine state and Bangladesh to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
“The Myanmar government will scrutinise the boat people and bring back those who can show evidence of citizenship,” the minister said.
The government’s move to at least acknowledge the problem in public could make it easier for the NLD to follow suit and promote a united response.
On the other hand, Aung San Suu Kyi might decide to maintain her silence, calculating it is in her interests to leave the government on its own to deal with any backlash across the country but especially in Rakhine as the elections draw near.
By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2015