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
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
techProbably not, this lamp is secretly live-tweeting conversations from a McDonalds
News
Ain't that a kick in the head: a still from Jared Frank's money-spinning video
mediaTrain Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video
Sport
The redeveloped Anfield will eventually hold 58,800 supporters
footballClub marking return to Champions League elite
Arts & Entertainment
musicPaul Weller says ‘greedy touts’ have wrecked vinyl promotion
Voices
peopleWhat better hero for Britain than Saint George?
Sport
Stephen Hendry has not played a ranking event for two seasons
Stephen Hendry poised for a sensational return to snooker
News
Fresh hope: Ruth Womak and her dog Jess
educationHow one housing association's remarkable initiative gave hope
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Day In a Page

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents
Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?