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

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Arts and Entertainment
You could be in the Glastonbury crowd next summer if you follow our tips for bagging tickets this week
music
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie performs during her Kiss Me Once tour
musicReview: 26 years on from her first single, the pop princess tries just a bit too hard at London's O2
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionEveryone, apparently
Voices
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs
voicesJustine Elyot: Since Fifty Shades there's no need to be secretive about it — everyone's at it
Arts and Entertainment
A new Banksy entitled 'Art Buff' has appeared in Folkestone, Kent
art
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Sport
Husain Abdullah returns an interception off Tom Brady for a touchdown
nflLeague has rules against 'sliding to ground on knees'
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Maths teacher require...

KS1 Teacher

£21500 - £31500 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work...

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style