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Aung San Suu Kyi Missing from Global Meeting on Rohingya

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech during a World Press Freedom Day ceremony in Yangon, May 3, 2015.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech during a World Press Freedom Day ceremony in Yangon, May 3, 2015.

An international gathering about the plight of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslims boasts a star-studded cast, with three Nobel Peace laureates among those calling on the world to wake up to the unfolding tragedy.

But fellow winner and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will not be among them. She wasn't invited.

During her 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi won admiration across the globe for her fiery speeches and scathing criticism of the military regime that ruled Myanmar, or Burma, at the time.

After her release in 2010, when ruling generals handed over power to a nominally civilian government, she won a seat in parliament.

The 69-year-old says she is a politician and that she never sought to be a human rights champion. Critics note she is carefully choosing her battles, in part because she has presidential ambitions.

Immigrant Crisis in Southeast Asia, Royhingya peoples from Burma and Bangladesh
Immigrant Crisis in Southeast Asia, Royhingya peoples from Burma and Bangladesh

In a predominantly Buddhist country of 50 million people, where there is much animosity for the 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims, Suu Kyi has opted to remain silent, even as the world watched in horror while more than 3,500 hungry, dehydrated Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand this month.

The international gathering Tuesday at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, will feature video statements from Nobel Peace Prize winners Desmond Tutu, José Ramos-Horta and Mairead Maguire. Others, like philanthropist George Soros, who escaped Nazi-occupied Hungary, and former prime minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, will also speak.

They will focus on concrete ways to end the decades-long persecution of Rohingya, and the need to speak out.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to South Africa's brutal apartheid regime, says in his video statement. “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Myanmar's transition from dictatorship to democracy has been a bumpy one.

Despite early euphoria about much-touted political reforms, the accompanying freedoms of expression had a dark side, lifting the lid off deep-seated resentment toward the dark-skinned Rohingya minority.

With hard-line Buddhist monks fanning the anger, machete-wielding mobs started taking to the streets in 2012, killing up to 280 people and forcing another 140,000 into crowded, dusty internment camps. They have little access to school and adequate health care, nor can they move around freely, paying hefty bribes if they want to pass police barricades, even for emergencies.

The government insists they are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh and has denied them citizenship, adding to the desperation that sparked an exodus of an estimated 100,000 Rohingya in the last three years. Authorities refuse to identify them as “Rohingya” and use “Bengalis” instead. Suu Kyi also avoids the term and generally refers to them as “Muslims.”

The website for the three-day Oslo conference says the popular daughter of Myanmar's late independence hero, Aung San, shares the “anti-Rohingya” sentiment of much of the population, something she had denied, but with little vigor. Aase Sand, of the Norwegian Burma Committee, one of the event's organizers, said there was never a plan to invite her or to ask for a videotaped statement.

Suu Kyi has in the last two years actively campaigned to change the constitution that bars her from the presidency because she was married to a foreigner. With elections slated for the end of the year, the Oxford-educated opposition leader realizes she herself won't be contesting the upcoming vote. Still, her National League for Democracy Party will be, and it's expected to do perform strongly.

Suu Kyi has been playing a delicate balancing act. She has been careful not to rile the military, which still wields tremendous political power, with a quarter of the seats in parliament and veto power over changes to constitutional amendments. She also realizes she, and her party, risk public backlash if she speaks out in defense of Rohingya.

Suu Kyi, a member of the Burman Buddhist elite, bristles when foreign media or rights activists ask her why she has so far failed to denounce religious bigotry in Myanmar, whether against Rohingya or Christians from the Chin and Kachin minorities, who have also long been subjected to threats, intimidation, and discrimination.

She did not respond to questions from The Associated Press, but reiterated her position in an interview with Canada's The Globe and Mail last month that the problems in Rakhine state, where almost all the country's Rohingya live, are based on fear and perceptions of being a minority.

The Rohingya feel threatened by the Buddhists in Rakhine, while the Buddhists fear the Muslim world's wider backing of the Rohingya.

“Those who criticize me for not condemning one side or the other, they've never said exactly what they hope will come out of such condemnation,” she told the paper. “You're just taking the moral high ground for the sake of sounding good it sounds a little irresponsible.”