Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s presence in Strasbourg to receive the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize is a potent reminder of just how far the Nobel laureate and her once-pariah nation have travelled in the last few years.

The fact that she can finally go to Strasbourg to pick up the prestigious prize, awarded 23 years ago, is cause for celebration.  So too is Myanmar’s remarkable peaceful transition from military to civilian rule.

But even as they lay out the red carpet for the leader of the National League for Democracy, members of the European Parliament and EU policymakers must step up pressure for political and economic reform in the country – and urge Suu Kyi to take a stronger stance on ending the rising violence and discrimination against the Rohingya people.

Myanmar has certainly come a long way in the last few years. Once an isolated nation under a harsh military junta, the country is now universally feted for its embrace of civilian rule and continuing efforts at political reconciliation and economic reform. Investments are booming.

In a striking symbol of on-going international rehabilitation and economic integration within the region, Myanmar will take over as chair of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014, thereby playing a crucial role in preparations for creating an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015.

Suu Kyi’s fortunes have also changed.  Released from years of house arrest in November 2010, The NLD leader remains the country’s most popular politician.  After having spearheaded her party’s entry into the Myanmar parliament in 2012, she is now head of the “Rule of Law and Tranquillity Committee” in the Lower House.

With an eye on the presidency after general elections in 2015, she is now in full campaign mode, telling investors, officials and reporters in Singapore recently that the NLD is the “most effective political party” in the country and reiterating calls for changes in the constitution which currently bars those with foreign-born family members of becoming head of state. The NLD also says the constitution is undemocratic because it gives the military a substantial percentage of parliamentary seats.

Myanmar’s transformation is impressive. But neither Myanmar, nor Suu Kyi can afford to rest on their laurels.

The Nobel laureate’s standing as a defender of democracy and human rights and Myanmar’s reputation as an emerging Southeast Asian tiger are conditional on their response to several challenges facing the country.  Above all, they must take urgent action to stop rising inter-communal violence between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims (who make up 4 per cent of the population).

Buddhist Muslim violence 

The bloodshed which continues to rack Rakhine State is spreading to other parts of the country with Muslim communities.  Since June last year, the clashes are reported to have killed at least 237 people.  According to the International Crisis Group, the violence has regional implications given the sharp increase in the number of Rohingya Muslims making the treacherous journey by boat from Rakhine State to other countries in the region.

Intercommunal tensions have also spilled over Myanmar’s borders with the murder of Myanmar Buddhists in Malaysia and related violence in other countries. There have also been threats of jihad against Myanmar and plots and attacks against Myanmar or Buddhist targets in the region, the ICG warns.

Human Rights Watch accuses the Myanmar authorities and members of Arakanese groups of committing crimes against humanity in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya and other Muslims. “The government needs to put an immediate stop to the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable or it will be responsible for further violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the country,” says Phil Robertson deputy Asia director.

President Thein Sein has struggled to maintain order as deep-rooted tensions that were largely contained under the army’s strict rule boil over in different parts of the country. In a recent first visit to Rakhine since taking office, the president urged the public not to incite violence, saying: “Just military and police control is not enough. These burnings, killings and violence will cease only when you yourselves play a part in controlling this.”

The European Parliament is clear about the way ahead. In a resolution adopted in June, it said the government must take urgent action to end all forms of persecution and violence against the Rohingya Muslims, ease their humanitarian situation and protect them from violence and public incitements to religious hostility. The EU assembly also insisted the government draw up an action plan to address the root cause of the discrimination and undertake an urgent review of a 1982 Citizenship Law with a view to granting citizenship to the Rohingya.

All eyes are now on Suu Kyi who has so far steered clear of a direct condemnation of the Buddhist-Muslim violence. In Singapore recently, she admitted that the current stalemate in resolving protracted insurgencies, inter-ethnic conflicts and lack of robust laws posed the biggest challenges to development in Myanmar.  Asked about the inter-communal violence, Suu Kyi insisted on the need to respect the rule of law, saying the international community could help by “giving us your understanding (and) by trying to go deeper into the reasons why communal conflicts have been taking place.”

“Please study the situation in depth, please don’t take a superficial look at it, and try to condemn one community or another,” she said.

Call it realpolitik

Celebrated as an icon for democracy while she was under house arrest, Suu Kyi has spent the last few years collecting a host of much-deserved international awards and accolades. She is now entering the more difficult world of realpolitik and as a politician with presidential ambitions she is understandably reluctant to lose public support.  While she sits on the fence, however, her international standing is at stake.

“Times have changed,” says Derek Tonkin, Chairman of Network Myanmar. While she is still influential, Suu Kyi’s reluctance to comment directly on the resumption in mid-2011 of fighting in Kachin State and on the repressive action against the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine possibly reflects concerns that too vocal criticism of State actions might lessen her personal support among the Burman majority population, he says.

However, Tonkin correctly underlines that such calculations are “surely not appropriate for a Sakharov Prize Winner, for personal interest should play no part” – although it could be argued that her election to the presidency might bring more rapid reform and greater democratic freedoms.

Having visited Myanmar recently, Barbara Lochbihler MEP, Member of the Green Group and Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, warns that the inter-communal violence is being stirred by hate-mongers, including some Buddhist monks. “The state could react immediately to this violence if they wished. Hate speech is something that must be controlled,” she insists.

Recognising the Rohingyas as citizens is central, says Lochbihler, pointing out that illegal people everywhere face exploitation. “The Rohingyas are stateless and they are also extremely poor,” she says, noting that the President’s appeals for an end to violence need to be urgently implemented on the ground. Changing mindsets will be crucial since even senior politicians believe that outsiders are wrong in demanding that the Rohingyas should become citizens because “they are not Burmese, they are just creating problems and should go back home… others say they are infiltrated by radical Muslims to take our land,” said Lochbihler.  “I think they have underestimated how the international community looks at such brutal attacks.”

The international community does care, however. Violence in the country deters potential investors, making them more wary of putting their money in a country facing political uncertainty. What happens in Myanmar also has deep repercussions on relations between Buddhists and Muslims in the rest of South and Southeast Asia.

The accolades Suu Kyi receives in Strasbourg will be well-merited. She is receiving the Sakharov Prize for her role in standing up to the military junta. As a strong, brave and remarkable woman, she certainly deserves it.

However, as Myanmar marches towards new horizons, it is important that the Nobel laureate and peace advocate adds her voice to calls for inter-communal reconciliation, ethnic harmony and an end to violence.

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