Myanmar unrest tests iconic status of Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi's refusal to condemn attacks on Muslims in Myanmar has dimmed the Nobel laureate's lustre among global rights campaigners, but observers say her reticence will do her no harm with voters.

Nearly a month after religious riots killed 43 people in central Myanmar, the former political prisoner turned lawmaker finally voiced sympathy for Muslims targeted by violence that saw mosques and homes razed.

But Suu Kyi again failed to clearly condemn attacks against Muslims -- who represent an estimated four percent of the population -- or hate speech by some extremist Buddhist monks.

Instead, as in 2012 when two waves of violence between the stateless Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists caused more than 180 deaths in the west, the opposition leader more indirectly urged respect for the "rule of law".

"They did not feel they belonged anywhere else and you are just sad for them that they are made to feel they did not belong to our country either," she said of Myanmar's Muslims last week during a visit to Japan.

But Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and endured years of house arrest, defended the restrained nature of her remarks and said: "I am sorry if people do not find my comments interesting enough to acknowledge them."

Rights groups say her comments, delivered late and without criticism of the perpetrators of violence, sit uncomfortably with her position as a democracy champion who led a long fight against Myanmar's former military junta.

"I'm glad she is in some ways recognising that these people are facing a very, very difficult situation" but "there has to be more than just her feeling sad," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

"The burden of action here lies with the government, but she is not an ordinary opposition leader either... and this is where some of this moral authority built up over the years needs to be used," he added.

For their part Myanmar's ethnic minorities harbour suspicions of the Burman majority group -- including Suu Kyi -- and complain that discrimination endures under Myanmar's civilian-led reformist government.

The Rohingya in particular feel let down by Suu Kyi.

Some 800,000 of the minority group, considered by the UN as one of the most persecuted in the world, live in Rakhine State where tens of thousands of people were displaced by the violence last year and still languish in makeshift camps.

Human Rights Watch has accused security forces of allowing and in some cases leading assaults against the Rohingya.

Abu Tahay from the National Democratic Party for Development, which represents the Rohingya, said Suu Kyi has an "obligation" to intervene given her status as daughter of independence hero Aung San and a "democratic icon".

Yet he stepped back from openly criticising the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) -- which is tipped to win general elections in 2015 that could install Suu Kyi as Myanmar's president.

Suu Kyi's core constituency in the dominant Burman population sees the Rohingya as worthless illegal immigrants, and any offers of support may haunt her at the elections.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has an election to win in 2015. She risks alienating politically potent Buddhist elements among her own supporters if she appears too cosy with the Rohingya, or other Muslims," said Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University.

"Western human rights activists and international opponents of anti-Islamic prejudice will not have a vote in who runs Myanmar in the years ahead," he said.

More immediately, "The Lady" does not want to fuel ethnic and religious tensions as the country undergoes its transition from junta rule, according to Win Tin, co-founder of the NLD.

"There was some damage to her moral authority because of this situation. Daw Suu also knows about it," he told AFP, using a Burmese honorific, adding that her caution recognises "things are very fragile politically".

Foreign observers need to take a more realistic view of the democracy leader, a senior diplomat formerly posted to Myanmar told AFP.

Critics "need to consider whether their disappointment is a consequence of attributing near-sainthood and infallibility to her during her years under house arrest", the diplomat said, requesting anonymity.

But Chris Lewa, the Bangkok-based director of The Arakan Project, which lobbies for Rohingya rights, said Suu Kyi was failing a vital test of leadership.

"She talks a lot about the rule of law, but that is not enough," she said.

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