Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has found herself in a place she is not used to: under pressure from global human rights activists, as well as fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates, for her long, studied silence on the plight of about 1 million Muslim Rohingya in her native Myanmar.

Last week, The Australian’s formidable south Asia correspondent Amanda Hodge scored herself a global scoop when the Dalai Lama took the Myanmarese opposition leader to task during an interview that was part of a larger project on Buddhism that Hodge has been researching. The story was picked up by pretty much every news outlet of note and has helped ratchet up pressure on Suu Kyi.

The Tibetan spiritual leader said he had spoken to her twice in recent years on the plight of the Rohingya. “It’s very sad. In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something,” he said. “I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republ­ic. I mentioned about this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

His comments coincided with a meeting in Oslo last week of Nobel laureates, during which others joined the chorus of people outside Myanmar taking Aung San Suu Kyi to task. But inside the country, it’s barely an issue. The Rohingya have few friends among regular Buddhist Myanmar people. Anti-Muslim feeling is strong, and last Tuesday in Yangon radical monks staged an anti-Muslim march attended by several hundred people.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy believe that they can win the election scheduled for October or November this year. That is very much their primary focus, and it is unlikely there are many, if any, votes in supporting the Rohingya. The party could well lose votes if seen to be “Muslim lovers”, as one senior NLD MP described it to me in Yangon last week.

The flight of the Rohingya from the Western state of Rakhine in Myanmar, where many have lived for generations, has gathered pace over the past three years as violence against them has forced many into squalid refugee camps.

Like Myanmar’s military-backed government quasi-civilian government, which replaced direct military rule in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy opposition party does not even recognise the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group.

Both sides of Myanmarese politicians find it hard to agree on much, but on this they are as one. “Bengali Muslims” is how they refer to the Rohingya, and both sides say that many of them should be sent “back” to Bangladesh.

As many as 250,000 live in official and unofficial refugee camps on the Bangladesh side of the border two, most having fled Myanmar’s state of Rakhine after military harassment during 1991 and 1992. About 140,00 now residing in camps in Myanmar, having been hounded out of their homes and businesses by violent mobs. Almost 300 have been killed in sectarian violence since 2012 — at least, that is the official figure.

There are between 800,000 and 1.3 million Rohingya in Myanmar, but all but about 40,000 are denied citizenship under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law.

The only time in recent months that the Myanmar opposition leader has addressed the growing concern among her international supporters was in an in an interview with Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper in April.

“I’ve always been a politician. I’ve never said that I was a moral organization or anything like that,” Suu Kyi said in the interview. Fair enough, and the pressure must be stultifying.

Yet a prominent billboard in downtown Yangon shows Suu Kyi holding a large sign saying “human rights”.

Last Friday, the Myanmarese government at least attended a regional summit in Bangkok, attended by countries around the region as well as observers from United States, Switzerland, United Nations and International Organization for Migration aimed at addressing the refugee crisis. But Myanmar’s government remains in denial as to its role in the unfolding tragedy.

A number of senior Australian bureaucrats also attended the forum, although, as usual, there has been no official response from the Abbott government. Australia seems as keen as everyone else to avoid being dragged too far into this ongoing crisis. Of course, it’s much easier when the desperate people involved are as unloved and unwanted as the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi’s critics have long accused her of being very much a Bamar, Myanmar’s main ethnic group from centre of the country. In the past they have criticised her failure to try and play a part in the torturous peace process with the ethnic militias that ring the centre of the country. There has been some success, but fighting continues to be particularly intense in Kachin state, and there are regular outbreaks in Shan state.

But the conflict with the Rohingya is different to the other regional conflicts in Myanmar, which are effectively a string of mini civil wars that have racked the country for the six decades since independence from Great Britain, and long before the military took control.

Rather than an ethnic conflict, this one is religious, making it all the more dangerous.

Perhaps the taste of some sort of victory later this year — even though Suu Kyi is unable to run for president — is so tantalising she is willing to risk some of her moral authority, at least in the international sphere. There is an argument that an NLD victory will generally reduce repression around the country, and that is worth the silence.

Still, the disaffected Rohingya must surely be ripe for exploitation and radicalisation by Muslim groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

If this should happen — and any full-blown attacks inside Myanmar would surely put the timing of this year’s election at risk — then Suu Kyi and the NLD must wear a portion of the blame.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey