Over the past week, violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State, in the western part of Myanmar, has flared up badly once again. According to reports in local media and the news wires, over the past seven days at least sixty —and as many as one hundred— people have been killed in clashes. The local security forces allegedly have been firing on some crowds, and other reports suggest that the refugee camps set up for Muslims in the area have already become so overcrowded that they can no longer hold new arrivals.
The cause of the new violence is very murky, with reports and rumors suggesting that some local activists, or even the security forces, have been triggering the clashes in order to lead to a crackdown on Muslims. Other reports suggest that some local fights between young men sparked the violence.
But amidst the murkiness and the chaos, a larger question has arisen: Who in Myanmar’s leadership is going to take a serious, progressive approach to solving this ethnic tension? Though President Thein Sein has passed laudable economic and political reforms, his government has been mostly silent on the violence in Rakhine state, refusing to allow the Organization of the Islamic Conference to open offices to help investigate and potentially resolve the violence. It remains unclear whether the security forces are directly involved in the violence, and whether Thein Sein has tried to restrain local commanders, or even has total control over them.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been nearly as quiet, alas. Throughout the violence in Rakhine State, which has gone on for months now, Suu Kyi has said almost nothing, even as other leading members of her party have issued harsh, anti-Muslim statements. During her recent trip to the United States, Suu Kyi mostly dodged questions about the violence, and she has been vilified by some Muslim leaders in Myanmar for her silence.
To be sure, Suu Kyi is trying to make the shift from opposition leader and symbol to parliamentary leader and party leader, and backing rights for Muslims in Rakhine State is not popular among the Burman majority, many of whom back the National League for Democracy (NLD). And yet if Suu Kyi and her party were to be in power, running the government, they would need a real plan to reduce violence in Rakhine State, deal with the power of local commanders on the ground, and restrain the security forces. Thus the violence is not only an issue of rights —which Suu Kyi in the past paid great lip service to— but also of making coherent policy for the future, policy that at least calms the situation in Rakhine State and allows for some greater aid to flow in to refugees. Failing to make any real statement on the crisis seems a poor choice morally for Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership but also a sign of their great gap in policy experience.