Sectarian unrest rocking Myanmar has put Aung San Suu Kyi under pressure to speak up for the stateless Rohingya, but experts say the issue is a political minefield given ethnic and religious divides.
The Nobel laureate, on a landmark visit to Europe, was repeatedly asked by reporters on Thursday about the clashes between Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya that have left dozens dead and more than 30,000 displaced.
Speaking in Geneva, on her first trip to the continent since 1988, the veteran activist stressed “the need for rule of law,” adding that without it “such communal strife will only continue.”
However, her carefully chosen comments fell short of offering strong support to Myanmar’s estimated 800,000 Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, and she is on the horns of a dilemma.
Myanmar’s government considers the Rohingya to be foreigners, while many citizens — including the local Rakhine Buddhist population — see them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and view them with hostility.
“Our appeal is to the UN, foreign nations, the Myanmar government and especially to [Aung San] Suu Kyi,” Mohammad Islam, leader of Rohingya refugees living in a camp in the Bangladesh border town of Teknaf, said on Wednesday.
“Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t done or said anything for us, yet the Rohingya including my parents campaigned for her in the 1990 elections,” he added.
Experts say the issue is fraught with political danger for Aung San Suu Kyi as she tries to build her credentials as a unity figure who can represent Myanmar’s myriad minority groups as well as the democratic opposition among the majority Burmese.
“Many will want to know whether she considers Rohingya to be Burmese citizens deserving of the rights and protections that status should entail,” said Nicholas Farrelly, a research fellow at Australian National University.
If she fails to tackle the subject she risks disappointing those who “crave her leadership” he said — yet support for the Rohingya “risks alienating some Burmese Buddhists” who fear Myanmar’s minorities will gain growing influence.
The question threatens to overshadow her return to the world stage after 24 years inside Myanmar — much of it under house arrest — more so as today she is scheduled to deliver her long-awaited Nobel Peace Prize lecture.
Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned in her Yangon villa by Myanmar’s generals at the time of the 1991 award, which cemented her place and the nation’s democracy cause in the global spotlight.
The latest bloodshed has raised fears for Myanmar’s fragile reform process, which has propelled Aung San Suu Kyi from prisoner to parliamentarian in under two years. Some even question whether the timing of the unrest is a coincidence, coming shortly before the opposition leader left for Europe.
UN rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana has said the Rakhine unrest poses a threat to the country’s shift towards democracy, echoing earlier warnings by Burmese President Thein Sein that the country’s “democratic process” could be damaged.
The government has signed ceasefires with several ethnic rebel groups around the country, yet ongoing fighting in northern Kachin State and the communal clashes in Rakhine have underscored the fragility of peace across Myanmar.
“It’s a very explosive situation and whoever touches the issue will have to walk a very, very fine line,” said Aung Naing Oo, a Myanmar expert with the Vahu Development Institute in Thailand.