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Myanmar crisis Swiss ambassador: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi is in a difficult position’

Smoke rises from a burned house in Gawdu Zara village, northern Rakhine state

Smoke rises from a burnt house in Gawdu Zara village, northern Rakhine province, on Thursday. The village had been abandoned by Rohingya Muslims


As tensions in Myanmar escalate, the Swiss ambassador in the southeast Asian country has defended de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under heavy international criticism for failing to stop or condemn the army’s attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority.

“The situation is much more complicated that it first appears,” Paul Seger, Switzerland’s man in Myanmar since 2015, said in an interview with the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeigerexternal link on Thursday.

“All I can say is that Switzerland is calling on the Myanmar government to protect the civilian population of the Rohingya and thereby the Muslim minority. We have made our position public.”

On Monday, the top UN human rights official denounced Myanmar’s “brutal security operation” against Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine province which he said was “clearly disproportionate” to insurgent attacks carried out last month.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, said more than 270,000 people had fled to Bangladesh, with more trapped on the border, amid reports of the burning of villages and extrajudicial killings.

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” he said.

‘Difficult position’

Seger, however, believes that Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel peace prize in 1991 for championing democracy, is in a difficult position.

“Some 70% of people living in the north of Rakhine are Muslim, which has triggered fears of overpopulation among the Buddhist minority in this region. Such feelings, deeply embedded in the population, go far back and have increasingly built up. Myanmar also has Buddhist preachers of hate, nationalists and fundamentalists – and these currently have considerable influence on public opinion,” he explained.

“That make’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s job harder: the majority of the country would be against her if she were to step in for the north. She has to strike a balance between international criticism and domestic support.”

Swiss involvement

Switzerland has been involved in Rakhine province, above all with humanitarian work, for six years, Seger said.

“In April Switzerland approved additional credit of CHF2 million ($2.1 million), which it increased by around CHF200,000 a few weeks ago. Our humanitarian involvement in Rakhine totals more than CHF7 million. The crisis in the region hasn’t suddenly broken out but has been reaching a climax for some time.”

Asked how Switzerland was helping concretely, he cited by supplying water, hygiene and medical aid for people in need. 

“We’re also committed to protecting minorities and vulnerable groups of people, above all women and children, and looking after the victims of violence. Finally, we support efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and contact between the two groups and to strengthen the moderate powers.”

He also confirmed that Switzerland is in contact with Aung San Suu Kyi. 

“We’ve had intensive talks with her about the situation in the north, above all the discrimination against the Muslim minority,” he told the Tages-Anzeiger.

“In addition, in March 2017 Switzerland, together with other countries, supported the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council which demanded Myanmar end this discrimination. This includes the involvement of a fact-finding commission which aims to shed light on incidents since October 2016. It concerns accusations of serious human rights violations. We also have expectations concerning the Myanmar government.”

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