Aung San Suu Kyi’s plate seems to be full. She had fought for years for democracy against the military junta. Vindicated, she entered Burma’s parliament to build a coalition by representing her party, the National Democratic League (NLD), after winning a by-election. She tended to a steady stream of foreign dignitaries who visited Burma right after the military government granted her freedom. Then for the first time in years she set foot outside Burma to visit foreign countries and open paths for diplomatic relationships.
While all this was going on, there was trouble brewing at home – an ethnic clash between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims.
On June 2nd, in the Western state of Rakhina ethnic Buddhists killed as many as ten Rohingya Muslims, in retaliation for the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men. The events that followed saw scores of burnt houses, killings, and Rohingya Muslims fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh.
The ethnic divide between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims is troubling. The Rohingyas, particularly, are caught in a political, economic, and social limbo between Bangladesh and Burma. There are about 26,000 Rohingya Muslims living in Bangladesh, 22,000 with legal refugee status. The future of the rest is unknown if and when Burma decides to grant legal refugees a resident status. For now, the 26,000 Rohingya Muslims continue to live in a squalid condition in Bangladesh.
For most part of her adult life Ms. Suu Kyi stood for human rights. Can she resolve the long-standing ethnic tension in Burma, which requires a unity and solidarity among the politicians, the religious leaders, and the military leaders?
A coalition of Thein Sein’s government and Ms. Suu Kyi’s party should try to engage with their Bangladeshi counterpart to discuss the future of the refugees and find a way to transform “reckless optimism” and “healthy skepticism” into achievable solutions to the ethnic crisis.
Engaging the Association of South Asian Nations (ASEAN) to handle this crisis could become a crucial part of Ms. Suu Kyi’s democratic campaign against human rights violations. So far, ASEAN’s policy of addressing the human rights issue remains as a “principle of non-interference in domestic affairs.” ASEAN nations have done little to address human rights violation of an estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims.
Its charter on human rights issues remains tacit. In recognizing Burma’s ethnic strife, Ms. Suu Kyi has noted the need to repair this ongoing problem; however, she has also indicated that the ethnic problem “should not be allowed to get in the way of restoring democracy.”
The ethnic crisis in Burma deserves a concerted effort from Thein Sein’s government and Ms. Suu Kyi’s party as part of the democratic reform in Burma. Democratic reform in Burma requires a solution to the ethnic crisis that has engulfed the country for years. Her engagement with the political and religious leaders of the Buddhists of the Rakhina State and the Rohingya Muslims to work out a permanent solution to this decades-long crisis could be paramount. She could also urge the foreign leaders to cooperate with ASEAN through bi-lateral engagements. They will be unlikely to ignore her.