According to Myanmar’s de facto leader, Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, achieving peace is crucial to attracting foreign investment to the country finally emerging from military rule.
Just one problem: The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is under pressure to address the violence faced by the country’s minority Rohingya Muslim community. Ms. Suu Kyi has been criticized for her failure to condemn alleged abuses of the stateless people by security forces.
"We do not want our country to be unstable. But we've had a long history of disunity within our nation," Suu Kyi said in a business dialogue in Singapore, reported the Associated Press. "So national reconciliation is unavoidably important for us."
Some critics blame Suu Kyi for recent clashes between security forces and the Rohingya that prompted protests in neighboring countries and led her to cancel a trip to Muslim-majority Indonesia.
These incidents, some observers say, expose how little influence Suu Kyi has over the military – a strong institution that still maintains control over the nation it ruled for decades.
"Yes, there’s a justified sense that someone revered as a human rights icon should be doing far more to stop this violence," Mark Canning, a former British ambassador to Myanmar told the South China Morning Post. "But equally there needs to be greater recognition, including among NGOs, of the scale of the challenges she faces and the headway that’s been made."
In March 2016, the nation’s first democratically elected government was sworn into office as the generals who ran the country since the 1960s gradually eased control in 2011. While barred by the constitution from becoming president, Suu Kyi became the de facto leader, although members of the military still retain a huge number of government positions.
She was handed the prickly problem of dealing with the Rohingya, a Muslim minority primarily residing in the northern Rakhine state. While some Rohingya have been in Myanmar for centuries, the Rohingya are ethnically related to the Bengali people in neighboring Bangladesh, and they are not considered citizens in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
Clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012 led to a displacement of tens of thousands of Rohingya.
Suu Kyi's troubles with international rights groups began heating up in May when she asked the United States not to refer to the group as "Rohingya" because they are not recognized as an ethnic group. Some see it as her concession to Buddhist extremists in the country.
Her party did however try to restart a citizenship program in 2015, reported IRIN News, although it lacked transparency and was treated with suspicion. She created a commission led by former United Nations chief Kofi Annan to find solutions to the conflict earlier this year.
"What she has inherited is a dump of rubbish, a junk yard," Aye Win, a Muslim member of the commission, told Bangkok Post. "Her hands are tied – she can't do anything. What she is doing is trying to talk and negotiate and build trust with the army."
The stateless Royhingya have fled to neighboring countries over the years, sometimes getting turned back, becoming stranded at sea, or falling prey to human smugglers. While allowed entry to Malaysia and Indonesia for temporary refuge, they await repatriation in detention centers. More than 125,000 Rohingyas are still displaced.
In early October, an attack on security outposts in Rakhine that killed nine police was blamed on militant Rohingyas, causing a military crackdown on the area. A Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery claims that up to 1,250 buildings were destroyed in Rakhine in retaliation. Fleeing Rohingyas claim that security forces committed gang rapes, torture, and murder, all charges that the government denies.
"If they are true, the lives of thousands of people are at risk. The reputation of Myanmar, its new government, and its military forces is also at stake in this matter," said Adama Dieng, the UN's special adviser on the prevention of genocide, reported Reuters.
"Myanmar needs to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law and to the human rights of all its populations. It cannot expect that such serious allegations are ignored or go unscrutinized.”
Suu Kyi, courting investors in Singapore, said, "Prosperity will help our people to understand that united, we progress together.... If we wish to be a strong and prosperous nation, we have to learn to give, to compromise, to engage in dialogue."
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.