Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has received a mix of condemnation and support from Burmese rights activists and religious leaders after denying that Muslims were the targets of ethnic cleansing and saying that fear among Buddhists has exacerbated religious tensions, Irrawaddy’s Samantha Michaels reports.
Communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims has nurtured a “climate of fear” within both groups, said the Burmese opposition leader. But she rejected claims that Muslims are subject to ethnic cleansing, although some 140,000 have fled into exile.
“It’s not ethnic cleansing,” Suu Kyi said in a televised interview with the BBC.
“There are many moderate Muslims who have been well integrated into our society,” she said. “These problems arose last year and I think that is due to fear on both sides. This is what the world needs to understand, both sides have been subjected violence.”
David Blair, chief foreign correspondent of London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, criticized Suu Kyi’s statements.
“I never thought I would write this, but Aung San Suu Kyi sent a shiver down my spine. Her equivocal attitude towards the violence suffered by Burma’s Muslim minority was deeply disturbing,” he wrote.
Others were more sympathetic to the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, Irrawaddy’s Michaels reports:
In Rangoon, an editor of the country’s first human rights journal said Suu Kyi should have said more to condemn anti-Muslim violence, but that he could understand her decision to refrain from taking sides, with her eye on becoming the country’s next president in 2015.
“She spoke in a diplomatic way,” said Wai Yan Phone, editor in charge of the recently launched Journal of Human Rights and Democracy, published by the Myanmar Knowledge Society. “She doesn’t want to lose votes from the Buddhist majority and she doesn’t want to hurt the Muslims who were the victims of violence last year.”
He agreed that Naypyidaw had not taken enough responsibility to hold perpetrators of violence accountable.
“The government has a full responsibility to stop hate speech and to mobilize harmony among different religious groups in the country,” he told The Irrawaddy on Friday. “But so far, only civil society has organized interfaith talks, while the government has been very inactive to address this issue. … And as we have read, security forces have done nothing, almost nothing to stop the advancing mobs from attacking the Muslims.”
The past year has witnessed growing clashes between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine, adjacent to the border with Bangladesh, and in central districts.
“I think there are many, many Buddhists who have left the country for various reasons and there are many Buddhists in refugee camps … in Thailand and scattered all over the world,” she said. “This is a result of our sufferings and a dictatorial regime. If you live under a dictatorship for many years, you learn not to trust one and other.”
Before all parties can sit down to ease ethnic tensions, Suu Kyi said fighting and violence needs to stop, UPI reports.
“We have said rule of law is imperative because before people can sit down and sort out their differences they have to feel safe,” she said. “If they think they can be killed in their beds, they aren’t going to talk about how to understand one and other.”
The Nobel Laureate said she condemns hate of any kind and urged reporters to “ask the government what their policies are and what they are trying to do — or not doing — to improve the situation.”
Around 735,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine state’s northern area close to the Bangladeshi border, according to the Arakan Project, a human rights group funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.