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November 15, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi Explains Silence on Rohingyas

by Anjana Pasricha

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi has called recent ethnic violence in Burma between Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims a huge international tragedy. Her visit to India is helping rebuild ties between Burmese pro-democracy campaigners and the Indian leadership, which had withered under Burma’s military government.

As Aung San Suu Kyi met top Indian leaders in New Delhi to lobby for their support for democracy in Burma, she responded to criticism that she has not spoken out about violence involving Rohingya Muslims - a minority community in Burma’s Rakhine district.

Dozens of people have been killed in the clashes and some 110,000 displaced since the violence first started in June.    

Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday told an Indian news channel that the violence was a “huge international tragedy.” She said she had not spoken on behalf of Rohingya Muslims, because she wanted to promote reconciliation between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

“But don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides. This is why I prefer not to take sides. And, also I want to work toward reconciliation between these two communities. I am not going to be able to do that if I take sides," she said.

Burma considers the Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants. Aung San Suu Kyi said illegal crossing of the border from Bangladesh has to be stopped.

In India, several commentators compared Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingyas to New Delhi’s abandonment of her pro-democracy cause in the 1990s. At that time, Indian authorities drew close to Burmese military rulers, prompted by India's strategic need to maintain friendly relations with the neighboring country. 

But now both sides are reaching out to each other. Aung San Suu Kyi’s message in India was forthright. During a lecture on Wednesday she said that Burma needs India’s support for political reforms.

"We have not yet achieved the goal of democracy," she said. "We are still trying and we hope that in this last, I hope, and most difficult phase the people of India will stand by us and walk by us as we proceed along the path that they were able to proceed many years before us."

After a meeting, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told her that “our good wishes are with you as indeed with your struggle for democracy.”

On her part, Aung San Suu Kyi did not hide her disappointment with India’s past record, but says she is setting faith in close ties between the people of the two countries.

"India had drawn away from us in our very difficult days. But I had faith in the lasting friendship between the two countries based on lasting friendship between our two peoples. This is what I would like to emphasize again and again. Friendship between countries should be based on friendship between peoples and not friendship between governments. Governments come and go and that is what democracy is all about," she said.

Political observers say, although India has welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to the political stage in Burma, it will strike a balance in repairing ties with pro democracy campaigners and maintaining its ties with Burma’s military generals.