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Cheered In Europe, Suu Kyi Faces Crises In Myanmar

Jul 3, 2012
Originally published on July 3, 2012 10:23 am

There are few opposition leaders who are welcomed abroad with the same pomp and ceremony as heads of state. But that's the sort of star treatment lavished on Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition leader of Myanmar, also known as Burma, on her three-week tour of Europe.

But pressure is increasing on her to address simmering political crises at home, and to move her country's democratic changes forward.

In Geneva, Oslo, Dublin, London and Paris, Suu Kyi issued eloquent pleas for ethical foreign investment in Myanmar and foreign support for her country's ongoing reforms.

"This is the most important time for Burma," she told parliamentarians and dignitaries gathered in London's Westminster Hall.

"This is the moment of our greatest need," she continued. "And so I would ask that our friends both here in Britain and beyond participate in and support Burma's efforts toward the establishment of a truly democratic and just society."

'Reform Program' Still Fragile

Suu Kyi, the first foreign woman and Asian citizen to speak at Westminster in the palace's 900-year history, said that beyond President Thein Sein, it's hard to determine how much support the current efforts in Myanmar enjoy, especially within the country's military. It's an assessment shared by outside observers.

"The entire reform program in Myanmar now hangs by a very slender thread," says Vikram Nehru, a Southeast Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He says Suu Kyi must quickly throw her considerable authority behind Thein Sein's key reform policies.

"Otherwise there's a great danger that the enemies of reform, those that are currently benefiting from the current system, will exert a pushback," he warns, "and that might be to the detriment of the long-term development of the country."

Pressure is increasing for Suu Kyi to make good on her inspiring rhetoric about human rights. There's no starker example than the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, next to Bangladesh.

Mob violence among Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims there has claimed at least 80 lives and created as many as 90,000 refugees in the past month.

Many Rohingya immigrated to largely Buddhist Myanmar from what is now Bangladesh generations ago. But neither Bangladesh's nor Myanmar's government recognizes them as citizens.

When asked in Oslo whether Rohingyas are citizens of Myanmar, Suu Kyi said she did not know.

"When you talk about the Rohingya, we are not quite sure whom you are talking about," she said. "There's some who say those people who claim to be Rohingyas are not the ones who are actually native to Burma but have just come over recently from Bangladesh."

A Sensitive Issue

Suu Kyi echoes popular complaints in Myanmar that the problem is caused in part by corrupt immigration officials along the border, and ineffective law enforcement in Rakhine state. She says that establishing the rule of law is the key to resolving the issue, but she does not suggest what the law should say.

"She finds herself in a very difficult position, because her constituency is known to be extremely anti-Rohingya," says Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Suu Kyi was elected to represent the remote rural township of Kawhmu, a three-hour drive from the main city of Yangon.

Maung Zarni points out that, when it comes to the subject of the Rohingya, the views of many Burmese pro-democracy activists are just as discriminatory and intolerant as those of the former junta they once fought.

"We must not be ashamed to admit that we have illiberal tendencies and elements within our culture and our practices, and they need to be rectified in accordance with the principles that we espouse or we are fighting for," Maung Zarni says. "You can't have it both ways. Are you for human rights, or are you against human rights?"

Maung Zarni suggests that Suu Kyi emphasize her principles while avoiding the specifics of the citizenship debate. He admits that he, too, opposes recognizing the Rohingya as one of the country's ethnic minorities.

Capitalizing On Recent Momentum

Fresh from her election to Parliament on April 1, and at the end of a triumphant tour of Europe, Suu Kyi now finds herself at an unprecedented level of popularity at home and abroad.

Some supporters point out that Suu Kyi is under considerable pressure not to upset the military into rolling back the changes and revoking her freedoms, and that she is working hard to build an organization that was focused on survival during decades of military suppression. They advise observers to be patient and not judge her too quickly.

But other supporters say Suu Kyi can afford to waste neither time nor opportunities to consolidate and push forward the country's fledgling reforms.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is the rare opposition leader who is welcomed abroad with the same pomp and ceremony as a head of state. Aung San Suu Kyi is that sort of opposition leader.

The one time political prisoner in Myanmar was accorded the star treatment on her recent tour of Europe. Now Suu Kyi is back home, and Myanmar's parliament starts a new session tomorrow.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, she's now under pressure to shift from the lofty rhetoric of her European trip, and instead push for practical benefits for the Burmese people who support her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Last week, the Iuventus Ensemble performed to welcome Suu Kyi to London's Westminster Hall. It was the culmination of three weeks of lavish receptions by European governments and eloquent pleas from Suu Kyi for support for Myanmar's ongoing reforms.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: This is the most important time for Burma. This is the moment of our greatest need. And so I would ask that our friends both here in Britain and beyond, participate in and support Burma's efforts towards the establishment of a truly democratic and just society.

KUHN: Suu Kyi herself said that beyond President Thein Sein, it's hard to determine how much support the current reforms in Burma enjoy, especially within the country's military. It's an assessment shared by outside observers.

VIKRAM NEHRU: The entire reform program in Myanmar now hangs by a very slender thread.

KUHN: Vikram Nehru, a Southeast Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that Suu Kyi must quickly use her authority to shore up support key reform policies.

NEHRU: Otherwise, there's a great danger that the enemies of reform, those that are currently are benefiting from the current system, will exert a pushback. And that might be to the detriment of the long-term development of the country.

KUHN: Pressure is increasing for Suu Kyi to make good on her inspiring rhetoric about human rights. What better example than the Rohingya crisis in western Rakhine state, next to Bangladesh? Mob violence among Buddhists and Muslims there has claimed at least 80 lives and created as many as 90,000 refugees. Many Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh generations ago. But Myanmar's government does not recognize them as citizens. When asked in Oslo whether Rohingyas are citizens of Myanmar or not, Suu Kyi replied...

KYI: I do not know, because when you talk about the Rohingya, we are not quite sure whom you are talking about. There's some who say those people who claim to be Rohingyas are not the ones who are actually native to Burma, but have just come over recently from Bangladesh.

KUHN: She says that establishing the rule of law is the key to resolving the issue, but she does not suggest what the law should say. Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says Suu Kyi has limited political room to maneuver on this issue.

MAUNG ZARNI: She finds herself in a very difficult position, because her constituency is known to be extremely anti-Rohingya.

KUHN: He points out that on the subject of the Rohingya, the views of many Burmese pro-democracy activists are just as discriminatory and intolerant as those of the former junta they once fought. He admits that he, too, opposes recognizing the Rohingya as one of the country's ethnic minorities.

ZARNI: We must not be ashamed to admit that we have illiberal tendencies and elements within our culture and our practices, and they need to be rectified in accordance with the principles that we espouse, or we are fighting for. You can't have it both ways. You know, are you for human rights, or are you against human rights?

KUHN: Fresh from her election to Parliament on April 1st, and at the end of a triumphant tour of Europe, Aung Sang Suu Kyi now finds herself at an unprecedented level of popularity at home and abroad. Whether or not she can maintain it and use it to boost the country's reforms may soon become apparent as she begins work in Myanmar's parliament, which is dominated by the ruling party and the military. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.