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Row over Aung San Suu Kyi threatens to split Burmese pro-democracy movement in Britain

  • @jerometaylor

Aung San Suu Kyi’s will wrap up her tour of Britain tomorrow with a celebratory gathering of Britain’s Burmese community featuring traditional music and dancing.

At first glance it is a fitting tribute for a woman who is often regarded as the one figure who can unite her country’s disparate opposition groups.

But the meeting will take place amid increasingly acrimonious internal fighting that is threatening the very future of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and vividly illustrates some of the difficulties facing Suu Kyi both at home and abroad.

The Independent has learned that a number of Burmese groups threatened to pull out of tomorrow's gathering amid accusations that Miss Suu Kyi is not doing enough to speak out against sectarian violence in her homeland.

Members of the Kachin and Rohingya communities – two groups that are currently victim to particularly acute violence inside Burma – are angered that the meeting is being billed as a celebration rather than an opportunity to press their grievances.

Kachin tribes in north-eastern Burma are currently in the midst of a brutal civil war against the military with reports of widespread human rights violations including kidnappings, extra-judicial killings and systematic rape by Burmese soldiers.

Members of Britain’s Kachin community have said they will refuse to wear traditional dress or dance at tomorrow’s meeting because “they have nothing to celebrate”.

“We are very happy that Aung San Suu Kyi has achieved her freedom of movement but she should speak up more to stop the human rights abuses and ask donors to increase humanitarian aid for the Kachin [refugees],” Hkun Htoi, a member of the Kachin National Organisation, told The Independent.

Recent sectarian rioting on Burma’s western border with Bangladesh, meanwhile, has broken out between the Rohingya, an oppressed Muslim minority who are refused citizenship despite residing in the area for centuries, and their Buddhist neighbours. 

Many Burmese view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and prejudice towards them has spilled out into recent bloodshed that has killed dozens and created thousands of refugees on the move.

The recent violence in western Burma, which was sparked when a Buddhist woman was raped last month by a gang of Muslim men and ten Rohingya were lynched in revenge, presents Miss Suu Kyi with an acute political problem.

Despite a fearless reputation for standing up to human rights abusers, the 67-year-old dissident has been noticeably silent on the subject of anti-Rohingya prejudice. That is because many of those who are most vocal in wanting to expel them from Burmese territory are part of the country’s pro-democracy movement. If Miss Suu Kyi speaks out in favour of the Rohingya’s claim to Burmese citizenship, she risks alienating some of her most erstwhile allies.

Those inside Burma have reported significant increase in recent years in anti-Muslim prejudice which has begun to spill out into Britain’s Burmese population. “Even on UK soil there is anti-Rohingya, anti-Muslim racism going on,” says Tun Khin, a prominent Rohingya refugee who, despite having a grandfather that used to be a parliamentary secretary, does not have Burmese citizenship. “There have even been protests in front of Downing Street against the Rohingya by Burmese groups saying we’re not citizens.”

Last Tuesday night Mr Khin’s door was smashed down in what he believes was an attack motivated by the recent sectarian violence in his homeland. He says many Rohingya are angered that Miss Suu Kyi has been quiescent on the violence unleashed against them and has refused to support their citizenship claim.

“Aung San Suu Kyi will be listened to by everyone so why doesn’t she speak up?” he said. “She could say stop fighting about ethnic issues, she could speak up and say these people have lived for a long time in Burma and they are citizens.”

Rohingya hopes that they might receive words of encouragement from Miss Suu Kyi were dashed earlier this week when she ducked a question while collecting an award from Amnesty International in Ireland on whether the Muslim tribe were Burmese citizens. Asked if the Rohingyas should be regarded as Burmese, she replied: “I do not know.”

Burmese Democratic Concern, which organised today’s meeting with Miss Suu Kyi, is one of the exile groups most vehemently opposed to Rohingyas. Its website contains numerous reports laying the blame for sectarian conflict squarely at the door of the Rohingyas – a view which is disputed by most human rights groups and the UN.

Myo Thein, the group’s founder, told The Independent: “There is no tension in Burmese community over Kachin community because we are behind our brothers and sisters there. We fully support them. But regarding the Rohingya issue we do have a problem. We don’t accept they are part of Burma or Burmese citizens. We see them as illegal immigrants, Bengalis from Bangladesh.”

Burma’s Muslim minority presents a political minefield for Aung San Suu Kyi as she evolves from being an imprisoned dissident to an opposition politician. The international community will expect her to continue speaking out against all forms of violence but the domestic situation has caused her to be cautious when it comes to the Rohingyas.

Mark Farmaner, from the Free Burma Campaign, says there is little chance anti-Muslim prejudice will go away any time soon. He recently returned from a one month visit to Burma.

“Anti-Muslim prejudice is endemic in Burmese society,” he said. “Derogatory comments about Muslims are so commonplace it is quite shocking.”