3 Oct 2012

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi not standing up for the Rohingya?

Whilst the ongoing reform in Burma is good, thousands are still being trapped within their villages. Why doesn’t Aung San Suu Kyi stand up for the Rohingya?

If you were going to compile a list of this year’s ‘feel-good’ news stories (and I realise it is a bit early be doing that sort of thing), you might well be tempted to put the on-going reform process in Burma at – or near to the top.

However, if you caught some our coverage from North-west Burma over the last few months, you will know that this is not just the regular ‘military-junta gradually hands over power to the people’ story. Burma is more complicated than that – not least because of a series of deeply entrenched ethnic and religious conflicts.

We saw it for ourselves, on two separate trips to Rakhine State, where the ethnic Buddhist majority and a sizable Muslim minority called the Rohingya are struggling to co-exist. After an allegation of rape in May, rival gangs burnt homes and settled scores. Sixty thousand Rohingya were burnt out of their homes and were later moved into a series of rough and ready rural camps by the authorities.

These ‘internal refugees’ are now receiving enough aid and assistance to keep themselves alive. However, the same cannot be said for Rohingya who retained their homes – and there are close to a million of them in Burma. In the name of internal security and stability, the local government has forbidden them from leaving their villages – but without the ability to travel, villagers cannot work and earn money. As a result, they are struggling to feed themselves and their children.

Inside the village camps

We went to one Rohingya village called Barzah, located on the outskirts of the region’s largest city, Sittwe. We were welcomed by a man called Maung Hla Sein and he told us that they were hungry – ‘they’ the 5000 people who were living there. It wasn’t something he really needed to say because we could see it for ourselves – tired, baggy eyed children wandering listlessly around a scruffy, water-logged site.

Some had protruding bellies – their skin stretched tightly over bony frames. We met a man called Farlie, who said he lost his job at a mosque when it was burnt down in the violence. His two daughters, Lalabu and Zaybarnisar were sick and starving. It was clear to me that without immediate assistance they would die. Yet Farlie could not take his daughters to the hospital in Sittwe because he and his daughters are Rohingya and they are not allowed to leave the village.

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Maung Hla Sein said the local government had brought the villagers rice on five occasions over the last month, the equivalent of 10 cups of rice per person over the entire 30 day period he said, and clearly it was not anywhere near enough.

Yet these food shortages were, in my view, totally preventable. Barzah is located several hundred metres from Sittwe’s main air terminal. If the government wanted, it could simply dismantle the barbed-wire fence separating the village from the airfield and drive the aid right in.

While international aid agencies, including the UN, are providing regular food shipments to the refugee camps around Sittwe, they have very little knowledge of conditions in Rohingya villages – because the local government will not let their representatives in. The softly spoken head of the UN in Burma, Ramesh Shrestha was uncharacteristically blunt when I asked him if he knew what was going on in these communities: “No, no,” he said. “It is a problem yes, because unless we have a clear picture of the whole situation you can’t devise a solution. We can’t propose a solution because we don’t know what is going on.”

Instead, aid workers and journalists who want information about these communities must rely on a combination of official pronouncements and rumour. We heard one troubling rumour about a Rohingya village located within a larger town called Chauk Taw. We’d been told that it had been rung with barbed wire and guarded by troops. Yet it lies within a restricted zone near the Bangladeshi border – a difficult place for foreign journalists to operate – so we sent a local contact to go for us.

“We are facing famine”

You can see the pictures we obtained from Chauk Taw in my video report above. The Rohingya village has been fenced off with wire and none of the 6,000 or so residents could leave. Villagers also gave us a carefully prepared 11 page document (pictures of the document to the left). It is entitled “Expressing the wishes and grievances of Rohingya from Chauk Taw Township.” Within the document, there is a list of those people killed and injured since the since the initial outbreak of violence in early June. Another passage describes restrictions on citizenship, marriage, travel and education that Rohingya have long faced in Burma.

The following passage was written about the current crisis.

“Since June, 6, 2012, we Rohingya cannot go to the main market. We also can’t trade in our shops in the market and we can’t work outside of market. The students can’t go to the school. We do not have access to medical care if needed. The farmers cannot grow rice in their files on time for harvest. We can’t also go from one village to the other. Because of the above restrictions and suppression, we are facing famine.”

“We are facing famine….”, which brings me back to that odd yet saint-like couple: Burma’s President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Yes, they are steering their nation towards a more prosperous and democratic future. Yet on the subject of the Rohingya, they have failed to lead. When asked about the issue in the US, Aung San Suu Kyi said:

“You must not forget that there have been human rights violations on both sides of the communal divide. It’s not a matter of condemning one community or the other. I condemn all human rights violations.”

Her careful comments are designed to neutral – but they are not. The two sides in this conflict are not ‘equal’ – and the behaviour of both communities is not ‘morally equivalent’. Regardless of where you stand on the ‘citizenship question’ for Rohingya in Burma, there are severely malnourished children in Barzah who are not eating because their parents can’t leave the village. A few miles up the beach however, local Buddhists drink beer and play guitars.

The analysts and commentators remind us that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer a political dissident – but a politician with an eye on the presidency in 2015. But what is the point of showering her with awards and standing ovations if she no longer stands up for the downtrodden and oppressed.

There is a moral component to leadership – the strength to challenge powerful interests – the confidence to question the thoughts and feelings of the majority – but at the moment, Ms Suu Kyi is not living up to the standards she herself set.