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This article originally appeared in The Bangkok Post.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been more successful in mobilising Myanmar's people for change than any figure in recent history. Through her perseverance, she convinced her compatriots that with time, effort and unity of purpose, reform really was possible. The odds were long, but eventually she won and was proved right.
More recently, Mrs Suu Kyi has been criticised for her tepid response to the situation in Rakhine state, and particularly the needs of the stateless Rohingya. A person of her skill and stature could have a significant and positive impact on this crisis, but time is running out. So if she will not engage voluntarily, then it's up to President Thein Sein to pull her from the sidelines. He should send her to Rakhine state immediately and publicly assign her a leading role in promoting a long-term solution for the Rohingya.
Myanmar may be on a path of reform now, but the plight of the Rohingya is as desperate and intractable as it was during the country's days of isolation. Recent outbreaks of violence have created overwhelming humanitarian needs, discrimination against the Rohingya is widespread, and the people of Myanmar are divided on whether the group should enjoy any rights at all. The government knows that the suffering of the Rohingya - and the situation in Rakhine state more broadly is putting an enormous drag on their plans to reform and rejoin the community of nations. It is a powder-keg that could explode again at any time, as it did in June and October this year. If it does, it has the potential to derail the whole democratisation process and tarnish Myanmar's image abroad.
I visited Rakhine state in September, and I was struck by the level of anger and fear expressed to me by both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities about the other. Rakhine state is the second poorest state in Myanmar, despite many natural resources, and Rakhine Buddhists also feel that they have been marginalised and ignored by the central government. Both communities were involved in the violence in the state in June, but the Rohingya community suffered by far the most deaths, injuries and destruction of property. In the October violence the Rohingya and Kaman Muslim populations were overwhelmingly the targets. The situation in Rakhine state is a powder-keg that is likely to explode again as it did in June and October this year. This issue has the potential to derail the whole democratisation process in Myanmar.
Mrs Suu Kyi has said publicly that she does not want to undercut the government's ongoing efforts in Rakhine state - including the national commission of inquiry it has recently set up. This is not an unreasonable position when one considers her limited power within the government, and the fact that the very reforms which got her elected could be reversed at any time. But it's all the more reason why President Thein Sein must be the one to move first.
If the president is sincere in his desire for assistance, protection, and reconciliation in Rakhine state, then he can do no better than sending Mrs Suu Kyi there. Such a move would demonstrate his maturity as a statesman and give Mrs Suu Kyi a chance to engage on this critical issue. But most importantly, it could put this region on the path - at long last - to a peaceful and sustainable future.December 17, 2012 | Tagged as: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Humanitarian Response, Asia, Protection & Security, Statelessness