Suu Kyi’s dilemma recalls SA’s in 1990Comment on this story
Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely described as Burma’s Mandela.
After being in and out of prison or house arrest for years, Suu Kyi was released late in 2010 by a reformed version of the military junta which has been keeping her incarcerated for so long.
Her National League of Democracy (NLD) party was also unbanned and allowed to stand in parliamentary by-elections this year when it won what was termed a “landslide”, capturing 43 of 45 seats, including one for Suu Kyi herself.
A few weeks ago, she travelled Europe to meet world leaders who were falling over themselves to be photographed with the courageous freedom fighter.
Much of that looks like SA in 1990.
Recently another much more sinister similarity has emerged as ethnic violence has broken out in Western Burma between Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Scores of people have been murdered and thousands of Rohingyas have fled across the border into Bangladesh.
Some analysts are suggesting that the military junta is stoking the violence to discredit Suu Kyi and upset the chances of her and the NLD eventually taking power.
It takes little imagination to draw an analogy with the violence which erupted here in KwaZulu-Natal and on the Reef soon after the ANC was unbanned and Mandela released.
That was mainly a political contest between the ANC and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s IFP.
And the other obvious analogy is that SA’s then National Party government, while embarking on negotiations with the ANC, was also widely accused of secretly stoking the ANC-IFP violence through a “Third Force”, to discredit and destabilise the ANC and damage its chances of taking power down the road.
Whether or not the Burmese military have launched a Third Force may yet emerge.
What is clear is that the violence has embarrassed Suu Kyi. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference and other international and local Muslim bodies as well as human rights organisations have urged her to use her influence to stop the killing.
This recalls Mandela going down to KwaZulu-Natal at the height of the fighting there and calling on both sides to throw their weapons into the sea.
The ANC supporters he was addressing jeered at him.
Suu Kyi’s response has been less emphatic and more expedient, some have said, disappointing many of those who had appealed to her.
Some commentators believe this is because she is reluctant to be seen to be too sympathetic to the Rohingya Muslims who have a sort of outcast status in Burma similar to that of the Roma in Europe.
Their origins are not very clear but they seem to have migrated from Bangladesh.
The country’s military government officially categorises them as illegal immigrants.
And Suu Kyi has prevaricated on this point, refusing to say if she regards them as true Burmese and insisting that it is up to the military to clarify their official status.
Her cautious approach on this point and in general to the crisis has rather left the Rohingyas hanging out to dry, her critics say.
Some academic commentators seem to be more sympathetic.
Iftekharul Bashar, senior analyst at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote this week that Suu Kyi would have to deal delicately with “the unfavourable majority view on Rohingyas, a reality she cannot ignore”.
Bashar continues that Suu Kyi is even more constrained in her response because her own parliamentary constituency, the rural township called Kawhmu, is particularly hostile to the Rohingyas and even key members of her NLD party have “a very negative perception about the Rohingyas”.
Bashar notes, though, that Suu Kyi also has to take into account the opposite risk, that if she does not come to the rescue of the Rohingyas, she will have lost credibility among human rights activists both at home and abroad, and among Western governments.
What a pity Mandela can’t advise her. He would surely say save the Rohingyas and to hell with the jeering.
Like his, her moral stature is her greatest political asset.