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Burma's Rohingya Muslims: Aung San Suu Kyi's blind spot

They suffer appalling violence and discrimination, but so far Aung San Suu Kyi has been notably silent on their plight

Aung San Suu Kyi's continued silence on the plight of Burma's Rohingya Muslims is sparking concern that the Nobel Peace Prize winner is failing to live up to her stature as one of the world's most celebrated pro-democracy campaigners.

Scores of people have been killed and tens of thousands have been made homeless during three months of inter-communal rioting between Buddhist and Muslim gangs in western Burma. Although there have been deaths on all sides, the Rohingya Muslims have been hit disproportionately hard in a state where they are already routinely discriminated against.

Throughout her two decades in jail and under house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi earned herself worldwide adoration for her refusal to bend to Burma's military junta and her steadfast criticism of all human rights abuses inside her country.

But "The Lady" has remained uncharacteristically silent on the persecution of Burma's Rohingya, knowing that speaking out would risk alienating many of her political allies who are vehemently opposed to them.

Diplomats and human rights groups have grown increasingly dismayed by her silence. One senior British minister told The Independent: "Frankly, I would expect her to provide moral leadership on this subject but she hasn't really spoken about it at all. She has great moral authority in Burma and while it might be politically difficult for her to take a supportive stance towards the Rohingya, it is the right thing to do."

During her visit to Britain in June, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, privately urged Ms Suu Kyi to take a more proactive role in seeking reconciliation. The Independent understands that the matter was raised again by officials in Rangoon after Ms Suu Kyi was appointed chair of a committee dealing with the rule of law, peace and security. But so far their pleadings have fallen on deaf ears.

The Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause inside Burma, where much of the country's majority Buddhist population view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The UN tells a different story and describes them as among the world's most persecuted people. Despite having lived in Burma for generations they are denied citizenship, need permission to marry or have more than two children and must notify the authorities if they wish to travel outside their villages.

Such policies were enforced by Burma's military but there is also little support for the Rohingya among Burma's pro-democracy opposition groups, with some of the so-called Generation 88 leaders among the most outspoken Rohingya critics.

Western Burma has long simmered with inter-ethnic tensions between the region's 800,000 Rohingya and their Arakanese Buddhist neighbours, but things came to a head in early June following a spate of tit-for-tat killings. The violence was initially sparked by allegations that a gang of Rohingya men had raped an Arakanese woman. Ten Muslims were lynched in response, sparking days of rioting. There have been strong suggestions that Burma's security forces actively encouraged – or at least turned a blind eye – as Rohingya were burned out of their homes. Journalists who have recently travelled there say the Rohingya have suffered the worst of the violence, with scores killed and an estimated 68,000 living in appalling conditions after they were forced out of their homes.

Whether Ms Suu Kyi will heed calls to use her influence in stemming the violence is difficult to predict.

"Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this," Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told the Associated Press. "She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She's a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote."

Anna Roberts, the executive director of Burma Campaign UK, said: "This is an incredibly serious situation and it continues to deteriorate at a very fast rate.

"There has not been anything like the international response that would be expected for a crisis on this scale."

Rohingya: The persecuted

For more than 30 years the Burmese government has denied citizenship to the 800,000 Rohingya people living within its borders, leaving them without a country of their own and leading the UN to describe them as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Legend holds that they are the descendants of Arab traders shipwrecked on the coast of Burma in the 8th century, and their dispersal across southeast Asia points to some kind of seafaring heritage in centuries past. Now, thanks to their language—a Bengali dialect similar to one spoken in southeast Bangladesh—the Rohingya are seen as illegal immigrants by Rangoon and many ordinary Burmese, prompting many to attempt to flee to third countries in rickety boats.

Tens of thousands have sought refuge in makeshift camps along the border with Bangladesh following clashes with Buddhist locals, sparked by reports that an Arakan Buddhist woman had been raped by three Rohingya men.

Julius Cavendish