21 Jun 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi facing the challenge of a divided nation

Feted in the West, Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces difficult political problems at home.

Has a visiting MP ever received such an extraordinary reception? Probably not.

Aung San Suu Kyi is no ordinary elected official of course.

The Burmese pro-democracy activist’s grand European tour has featured valedictory speeches and prizes and dignitaries by the lorry load.  This morning, Ms Suu Kyi got a lift in a chauffeur driven rolls to Clarence House to see Prince Charles and Camilla. This afternoon, members of both Houses in Parliament gathered to hear her speak.

It’s a happy tale of hard-earned adulation for a woman who has been on the receiving end of much injustice.

A vicious military regime, threatened by her popularity and her democratic message, locked her up in her own home for almost twenty years.

Made to choose between her family and her political convictions and she chose the latter and for this reason, perhaps more than any other, she has been lauded as a saint – a successor to the likes of Gandhi and Mandela.

However, it is worth reminding ourselves of what she is returning to.

Burma is deeply divided and wracked by violence in parts of the north and north-west. The military still controls the parliament within which she holds a seat. Her vision of a democratic, lawful and peaceful state has barely begun to form.

In this context then, she returns as a politician, not a venerated elder – and she has plenty of difficult issues to negotiate.

There’s no better example of this than the crisis in Rakhine State, where groups of Buddhists and Muslims have been warring with – and killing each other – over the last ten days.

It began with an allegation that three Muslims from the ethnic Rohingya minority, had raped and killed a Buddhist woman. News of the crime appears to have motivated several hundred people to attack a bus, from which ten Rohingya Muslims were dragged out and killed.  Death and destruction followed, fuelled both by hate and new found freedoms too – the freedom people in Burma now have to say what they want and publish it online.

The death toll is disputed. Activists representing the Rohingya say the government’s total of 62 is far too low – but everyone agrees that the situation is unstable.

The United Nations and the NGO community have pulled their staff members out, creating an information vacuum worsened by the fact that the government won’t let foreign journalists in.

I received this today from the United Nations, which is now trying to deal remotely with a full-blown humanitarian crisis:

“The challenges are immense. The government estimates at least 52,000 persons have been displaced by the violence. Unofficial estimates indicate that some 80-90,000 people have been affected. The destruction of property appears to be widespread.”

This desperate situation is also a political minefield.  The Rohingya, who number some 800,000, are viewed by many in Burma as Bengalis (from Bangladesh) – some call them ‘foreign invaders’ or even terrorists.

The government denies them citizenship, imposing restrictions on where they can travel and who they can marry. The United Nations takes a different view however, calling them one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

When asked about the crisis on her European tour, Aung San Suu Kyi skirted well-around it.

When asked whether the Rohingya should be regarded as Burmese, she replied, “I don’t know.” Ms Suu Kyi  added, unhelpfully, that the problem was that, “there are no-clear cut rules regarding who qualifies as a citizen.”

It’s not the stuff of Gandhi.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. She says she wants to lead the Burmese people – presumably by forming a majority government in the next general election (in 2015) and to pull that off, she’ll need to appeal to – and unify an ethnically diverse nation.

But the Rohingya are part of Burma, even if they are not recognised as such, and no one else is going to take them in.

Near neighbours Bangladesh is sending refugees back to Burma by the boatload. To get a grip on this toxic problem, someone is going to have to confront the mob, and if Aung San Suu Kyi won’t do it, who will?

Follow John Sparks on Twitter: @c4sparks