By Adithya Sivakumar
In the midst of the instability present in Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, as well as the Persian Gulf War, the world received one gleam of hope from Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese citizen awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent methods to resist the ruling Burmese military junta. Although she was unable to receive the award at the time due to her presence in house arrest, the awarding of the prize symbolized that the world was behind the fight against authoritarianism, and that if you were willing to make a stand, the world was ready to back you.
Nearly twenty years later, elections were opened in Myanmar, and although Suu Kyi was not allowed to participate, she was released from house arrest, and soon contested her party in increasingly-freer elections, which allowed her to become the leader of the opposition. In 2015, the military junta finally held openly-contested elections, and her party took control of the country. It appeared that Suu Kyi’s destiny was realized: democracy had taken hold, and Myanmar looked towards a hopeful future.
However, even with Suu Kyi’s triumphs, they came with the cost of ignoring a sizable, growing problem within the nation-state, one that threatens Suu Kyi’s record as a defender of human rights, and instead leads her down the path of the dictators who suppressed her. That problem, unfortunately, is masked within her own people: it is the plight of the Rohingya.
The Rohingya: A History of their Conflict
The Rohingya are a group of people primarily characterized by their religion, which is a variant of Sunni Islam. This group traces its origins in Myanmar through immigration starting in the fifteenth century, under the tutelage of the Arakan Kingdom, and continuing under British rule of then-British India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are also very different than other groups in Myanmar, “ethnically, linguistically, and religiously,” especially the dominant Buddhist population.
These stark differences enabled Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya since the country’s independence in 1948, including the proclamations that denied the people status as a recognized ethnic group within the country. Instead, they were commonly regarded as illegal Bengali immigrants from the neighboring country of Bangladesh, despite the residence of the group for centuries, as citizenship laws only conferred status on those considered “indigenous” groups. These types of laws left the Rohingya as a stateless people, leading to a serious deprivation in basic human rights for these individuals. The government also advanced processes that only allowed two children per family of the Rohingya, limited movement outside of certain villages, and constantly enforced a concept of otherness, calling the Rohingya “Bengali” in temporary identification cards in a reference to their South Asian heritage, instead of their desired identifier.
The plight of this group came into full focus in 2012, with the outburst of sectarian violence in Rakhine State, where many Rohingya resided. Resulting from accusations against a group of Rohingya men surrounding the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, the violence killed more than 280 people, and displaced more than 120,000 people. Many Rohingya began fleeing the country, fearing an increased crackdown from the government, prompting a refugee crisis that reverberated throughout Southeast Asia. Countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh were faced with an influx of individuals, and much like the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, countries were unaware on how to deal with the large amount of migrants, creating a large number of displaced persons within Southeast Asia.
Where Aung San Suu Kyi Has Failed
Aung San Suu Kyi could not have done much in the initial creation of the restrictive citizenship laws, as she was either in house arrest or away from Myanmar. However, since the transition to democracy in 2015, Suu Kyi has seemingly had a large opportunity to expand the rights of the Rohingya. With increased reforms in the government, the potential for citizenship reform also seemed possible. Unfortunately, with the outburst of sectarian violence, supporting the rights of the Rohingya became politically unfavorable. Under pressure from Buddhist nationalists in 2015, the Myanmar government revoked temporary residence cards from the Rohingya, effectively silencing their opportunity to vote in the national election in which Suu Kyi won by a landslide.
In part due to this electoral result, as well as pressure from the electorate that voted for her, Suu Kyi’s administration has been criticized as being largely silent on addressing the crisis in the Rakhine state. One state-run commission did not necessarily recommend changing the discriminatory citizenship laws, but rather just incorporating the Rohingya in the same law. Anti-Muslim sentiment is high in Myanmar, causing Suu Kyi to have little impetus to risk political expediency, despite large amounts of pressure from the United States and the European Union.
Solving the Rohingya situation in Myanmar is not simply a matter of making Suu Kyi take another stand for democratic ideals. Myanmar is filled with a complex history, one filled with exclusion and sectarianism. Making constitutional changes will likely not cause substantive change, as seen in many nations around the world. However, Myanmar has the unique opportunity of having a unifying figure, one that is seen by the rest of the world as a marker of peace. If Suu Kyi can force democracy in a state ruled by military strife, there is no reason why she cannot work to bring peace to Rakhine state, especially in a time in which her people need it the most.