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There were mixed reactions to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech this morning on her government’s efforts to address the crisis in northern Arakan State.
Hundreds of people gathered outside of City Hall in downtown Rangoon to listen to and watch the speech, which was televised on a large screen outside the municipal landmark. Many held placards with the words, “We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi.”
The mood in front of City Hall was generally optimistic as an overwhelmingly pro-Suu Kyi crowd joined together in the signing of the Burmese national anthem following the speech. Monks from the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha — best known outside Burma for its sometimes inflammatory anti-Islamic rhetoric and disdain for Rohingya Muslims — told DVB they were there to support Suu Kyi.
“She faces a lot of challenges and pressure to resolve the Rakhine [Arakan State] issue, so we need to support her,” said Ashin Yay Wa Ta from Ma Ba Tha.
The director of Triangle Women Support Group, Khin Lay, said she agreed with Suu Kyi’s speech and hoped “diplomats will accept the speech of our state counsellor because she explained the latest situation in northern Rakhine State and the government’s activities.”
Meanwhile Chit Swe, an 80-year-old Muslim resident of Rangoon’s Pabedan Township, called for greater religious tolerance, and for the government and Muslim community to work together to help the conflict-affected people of Arakan State.
“We should respect all religious people. Muslim people also don’t support the violence in Rakhine State,” he said.
Human rights groups disappointed
While Suu Kyi’s speech appeared to largely please her supporters, human rights groups took issue with some of the assertions made in the highly anticipated remarks, which were delivered from the capital Naypyidaw.
James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said: “Aung San Suu Kyi today demonstrated that she and her government are still burying their heads in the sand over the horrors unfolding in Rakhine State. At times, her speech amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming.”
As Suu Kyi stepped to the lectern for her first extended remarks on the crisis in the aftermath of the 25 August attacks by Muslim militants, rights groups said state security forces’ alleged involvement in human rights abuses was still not enough of a concern of her administration. Gomez stated, “While it was positive to hear Aung San Suu Kyi condemn human rights violations in Rakhine State, she is still silent about the role of the security forces in this.”
It is estimated that more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since 25 August, many relaying accounts of abuses at the hands of Burmese military and police personnel in the crackdown that has followed the militants’ assault.
While Gomez offered a critique of omission, others said Suu Kyi’s speech simply did not track with reality in some cases, such as when she said that there is “access to healthcare and education without discrimination” in Arakan State.
Access to health services in Arakan State for both Buddhist and Muslim populations is low, as noted in the final report of the advisory commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The acute shortage of qualified medical staff and patchwork of inconsistent health services was highlighted in the report, which also stated: “While all communities suffer from inadequate medical services, access to health is particularly low within the Muslim community in the northern and central parts of the state. In some areas, Muslims face discriminative obstacles that prevent available lifesaving services from being accessed.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the minimum number of health workers needed to maintain a functional healthcare system is 22 per 10,000 inhabitants. Currently, there are only five health workers per 10,000 people in Arakan State, compared to a national average of 16 per 10,000.
In Amnesty International’s statement on Tuesday, Gomez concluded: “Contrary to Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims, Rohingya are essentially segregated in Rakhine State, effectively denied citizenship and face severe barriers in accessing health care and other basic services. Refugees who have fled to Bangladesh cannot return to this appalling status quo.”
Suu Kyi also pledged to implement the recommendations of the Annan-led commission, which were welcomed by many observers. Yet the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has raised objections.
On Tuesday, USDP spokesperson Nandar Hla Myint said, “We welcome that measures will be taken with reference to the 1982 Citizenship law. However, we have concerns over implementation of the recommendations by Kofi Annan’s commission. We are concerned that the recommendations have terminologies and suggestions that could turn a dispute between citizens and noncitizens to a interreligious conflict.”
Suu Kyi invites repatriation of refugees
In her speech, the state counsellor said she too was concerned about the number of refugees fleeing across the border, yet stated that she did not know what was causing the alarming exodus. She told the audience in Naypidaw: “We want to find out what the real problems are. There have been allegations and counter-allegations. We have to listen to all of them. We have to make sure those allegations are based on solid evidence before we take action.”
Yet Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said the evidence was plain: “When a military burns 214 villages to the ground, it’s pretty clear why people are running.”
If there is one thing the government and human rights groups can agree on, it’s this: the widespread destruction of houses in Arakan State. State media reported on 6 September that more than 6,800 homes had been destroyed, and on Tuesday Human Rights Watch said new satellite imagery indicated the “near-total destruction” of 214 villages.
Conflict and security researcher Kim Jolliffe said that while the state counsellor’s statement welcoming the repatriation of Muslim refugees is encouraging, it comes with complications.
Speaking to DVB on Tuesday, he said, “Large numbers of the Rohingya refugees will likely refuse to go back anytime soon, having lost everything, suffered deep trauma and still feeling under serious threat.”
Part of the equation depends on the level of assistance and protection they can receive in Bangladesh and whether third-country resettlement ends up on the table, he said.
“Despite some concerns, she [Suu Kyi] doesn’t see this issue as a priority and hopes that her government and the international community can find ways to cooperate on other things. … The sub-text is that she doesn’t think she can do anything about it anyway, and is certainly not willing to expend huge political capital by going up against the military and the nationalists,” Jolliffe said.