Aung San Suu Kyi has just made her first official visit to New Delhi since sweeping to power as Myanmar’s first democratically elected leader in half a century.
This is an important occasion. Myanmar has a long-standing history of friendship with India. Buddhism, one of Myanmar’s pillars of national identity, came from India, and today numerous Buddhist pilgrims travel between both countries with great frequency. India and Myanmar share a colonial past and their independence leaders were very close indeed, perhaps none more so than General Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
Suu Kyi herself has had a close relationship with India, spending part of her younger years here while her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, served as Burma’s ambassador to the country in the 1960s.
The two countries also have much in the way of shared interests. Both need each other as a counter-weight to expanding Chinese influence, even as Myanmar welcomes increasing Chinese investment in its economic infrastructure. Both countries will benefit greatly from increased economic cooperation as Myanmar progressively opens up to the global markets – Indian investment is already flowing into Myanmar, while Indian enterprises can tap into Myanmar’s huge wealth of natural resource and its well-educated population. And both are also weary of external “meddling” from China and the West.
But not all is well between the India and Myanmar. Myanmar’s long-standing crisis over the situation of its Rohingya Muslim minority is casting a shadow over relations with India.
Although there are over 1.5 million Rohingyas native to Myanmar, more than half have already been displaced by the country’s policies, mostly seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, while the rest hang on in extremely precarious conditions, ghettoised away from the rest of the population, with limited to no access to work, or health and educational facilities, and under constant harassment and threat of violence. This crisis peaked in spring last year when the Rohingya exile from the country of their birth made international news. India has had to receive a significant influx of these refugees and, as things inside Myanmar stand, it can expect many more in the near future.
India is not the only one to have serious concerns over the matter. Last year, ASEAN took the unprecedented step of discussing the internal political issues of a member country for the first time when it chastised Myanmar over effectively causing the regional migration crisis that was straining other member countries’ infrastructure, their national emergency budgets, as well as damaging their trade. You must know you are doing terribly when Thailand, a country who has ‘employed’ many Rohingya refugees in their fishing industry in slavery-like conditions, criticises your human rights record.
Suu Kyi has shown little enthusiasm to tackle the Rohingya situation since coming to power. Not even now, when a new wave of anti-Rohingya violence has erupted in Rakhine State, with possibly over 100 killed in indiscriminate attacks by local state police and armed forces. As things stand, the situation could quickly degenerate into levels of violence not seen since 2012-2013. If this happens, a renewed regional migration crisis is going to be an inevitability.
It is all very well for Suu Kyi to tread carefully for fear of alienating the ultra-nationalist and extremist Buddhist factions in her country, many of whom supported her electoral bid last year. But she must understand that her political fortunes are inextricably linked with her success in opening Myanmar to the world. She has had a huge personal mandate as an icon of democracy in her country after 50-odd years of military dictatorship, but her election was an equally strong mandate for taking Myanmar back into the global community of countries. She will not succeed in doing this if she allows another migration crisis to hit her neighbours, while the West balks at the unfolding humanitarian disaster.
It is time for Suu Kyi to earn her Nobel Peace Prize once more and in doing so, save her vision for the future of her country. If she will not do so out of basic humanity, then hopefully she will do so when her neighbours and the international community make it a condition for continued economic cooperation.
Azeem Ibrahim is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.