NEW DELHI: Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday described violence in west Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims as a “huge international tragedy” and said illegal immigration from Bangladesh had to be stopped.
Suu Kyi, on a visit to neighbouring India, said she had declined to speak out on behalf of stateless Rohingya Muslims who live on both sides of the border because she wanted to promote reconciliation after recent bloodshed.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced in Myanmar since June in two major outbreaks of violence in the western state of Rakhine. Dozens have been killed on both sides and thousands of homes torched.
“Don’t forget that violence has been committed by both sides, this is why I prefer not to take sides and also I want to work towards reconciliation,” she told the NDTV news channel.
“Is there a lot of illegal crossing of the border (with Bangladesh) still going on? We have got to put a stop to it, otherwise there will never be an end to the problem,” she said.
“Bangladesh will say all these people have come from Burma (Myanmar) and the Burmese say all these people have come over from Bangladesh.”
The Nobel laureate, who was released from military house arrest in 2010, has faced criticism from human rights groups for her muted response to the ethnic violence in her homeland.
“This is a huge international tragedy and this is why I keep saying that the government must have a policy about their citizenship laws,” she said.
Nicholas Farrelly, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University, told AFP her comments reflected domestic opinion.
“If she makes a misstep, she could alienate her political base which is reluctant to have anything to do with the Rohingya,” he said.
“She appears to be pivoting away from international human rights groups and is echoing sentiments inside Myanmar.
“Leaders in Myanmar feel international support flowing towards the Rohingya is inappropriate and that it misunderstands the situation.”
Myanmar’s 800,000 Rohingya are seen by the government and many in the country as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. They face severe discrimination that activists say has led to a deepening alienation.
“There are quarrels about whether people are true citizens under law or whether they have come over as migrants later from Bangladesh,” Suu Kyi said.
“Most people seem to think there is only one country involved in this border issue.
“There is Bangladesh on one side and Burma (Myanmar) on the other and the security of the border surely is the responsibility of both countries.”
The Rohingya, who make up the vast majority of those displaced in the recent fighting, are described by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Suu Kyi, who is now a member of parliament after dramatic changes overseen by a quasi-civilian regime that took power last year, dismissed criticism that her response to the unrest in Rakhine had been inadequate.
“I am not ambivalent about my views on violence, violence is something that I abhor completely,” she said. “All those entitled to citizenship under the laws must be given citizenship, we say this very clearly.”
The Rohingya are not officially recognised in Myanmar, partly owing to a 1982 law stipulating that minorities must prove they lived in Myanmar prior to 1823 — before the first Anglo-Burmese war — to obtain nationality.
Representatives of the Rohingya say their people were in Myanmar long before then but their ethnic history is the subject of fierce dispute.
Story first published: 15th November 2012