Suu Kyi: Minorities issue must be tackled 'very, very carefully'

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the  World Press Freedom Day ceremony on May 3, 2015.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the World Press Freedom Day ceremony on May 3, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - In rare comments on Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya Muslims, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged caution on granting citizenship to minorities, saying the sensitive issue must be addressed "very, very carefully".

The Myanmar government is reviewing citizenship status and "should go about it very quickly and very transparently and then decide what the next steps in the process should be", she told The Washington Post.

But in an interview published online late on Tuesday, Ms Suu Kyi dodged a direct question on whether the Rohingya - who have triggered an international outcry as they flee the country on rickety boats in their thousands - should be given citizenship.

"The protection of rights of minorities is an issue which should be addressed very, very carefully and as quickly and effectively as possible and I'm not sure the government is doing enough about it," she said.

"It is such a sensitive issue and there are so many racial and religious groups that whatever we do to one group may have an impact on other groups as well. So this is an extremely complex situation and not something that can be resolved overnight."

The plight of the Rohingya, one of the world's most persecuted minorities, has worsened since 2012, when communal bloodshed left scores dead and some 140,000 people confined in camps in Rakhine state. The violence triggered deadly anti- Muslim unrest in Myanmar and coincided with rising Buddhist nationalism that has further entrenched animosity towards the minority widely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In recent months, images of desperate migrants hauled from vessels to South-east Asian shores have spurred calls for immediate humanitarian action.

But pro-democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, who became a beacon of hope during decades of house arrest under the military junta, has been accused of failing to speak up for the country's powerless as she campaigns for elections due in November.

"We have many minorities in this country and I'm always talking up for the right of minorities and peace and harmony and for equality," she told the Post, speaking after a landmark visit to China. And she insisted in Rakhine "the government has not done enough to lessen the tension and to remove sources of the conflict".

Buddhist hardliners want the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya expelled from Myanmar. And neither the government nor opposition parties have shown much appetite to confront communal tensions for fear of alienating Buddhist voters ahead of the polls.

Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party is expected to sweep the elections, but she is barred from the presidency under a constitutional provision excluding those with a foreign spouse or children from the top job. Ms Suu Kyi, whose husband was British along with her children, told the Post she believed "the government is totally opposed to constitutional amendment" that could pave the way to the presidency for her.

After long being an international pariah due to the military junta, Myanmar has embarked on a series of reforms bringing it back into the diplomatic fold. "We do worry that the reforms will turn out to be a total illusion, and we think we need more concrete steps to ensure that the democratisation process is what it was meant to be," she added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2015, with the headline 'Suu Kyi: Minorities issue must be tackled 'very, very carefully''. Print Edition | Subscribe