The de facto president’s flounderings over the country’s Muslim minority are symptomatic of wider failures, writes Richard Cockett.

It is coming up to a year since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took office in Myanmar after more than 50 years of military rule. NLD stalwart Htin Kyaw became the country’s new president, but it is the Nobel Peace prize winner, prevented from taking the top job by the military’s 2008 constitution, who has been running the country from her positions as State Counsellor and minister for foreign affairs. Much was expected of her. But 12 months on, there is little to celebrate.

It is already clear that whereas the NLD might hold office, they are not in power – that is still reserved largely for the military. Reforms have been frustrated, and the chances of real change in the country, at least under the present constitutional arrangement, are receding.

Exhibit A in Myanmar’s present dysfunction is the escalating tragedy in western Rakhine state. The Muslim Rohingya minority, about a million strong, have been persecuted and marginalised by the local Rakhine people and the wider Buddhist Burmese majority for decades. After outbreaks of violence in the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, in 2012, the Rohingya were subjected to a campaign of ethnic cleansing, sanctioned by the Burmese authorities. This attracted international condemnation, especially in the West; some called it a genocide.

There was a glimmer of hope, rather than expectation, that Suu Kyi’s new government would be more sympathetic to the Rohingyas’ plight. Instead the situation has worsened, especially since last October, when nine policemen were killed in Rakhine, allegedly by Rohingya militants. In response, the army has been conducting what it calls counter-insurgency operations, with devastating consequences.

Human-rights groups such as Amnesty International have documented numerous instances of abuses, including rape and extra-judicial killings. Thousands of Rohingya have been driven from their homes; the United Nations recently estimated that 65,000 have fled to Bangladesh. Northern Rakhine state has been virtually isolated by the army, with access cut off for humanitarian workers and journalists.

IN OFFICE BUT NOT IN CHARGE: Myanmar’s State Counsellor & minister for foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi
IN OFFICE BUT NOT IN CHARGE: Myanmar’s State Counsellor & minister for foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi

The army’s actions have provoked the first serious criticisms of Suu Kyi from outside the country since she founded the NLD in 1988. In December a dozen fellow Nobel laureates criticised her personally in an open letter, arguing that the army’s response had been ‘grossly disproportionate’. The signatories, who included South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, argued that ‘despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with the primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion’.

Many others have condemned Suu Kyi’s government, the latest being the UN human rights envoy to Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, who completed a 12-day tour of the country in January. She didn’t mince her words in her final report, arguing that the State Counsellor’s response to the army’s actions in Rakhine state seems ‘currently to be to defend, dismiss and deny. And this response is not only counterproductive, but is draining away the hope that had been sweeping the country’.

What is not clear, however, is whether Suu Kyi should be condemned principally for her actions, or her inaction. Is she defending the army’s offensive in Rakhine because that is state policy, backed by her and the NLD? Or is she simply afraid to criticise her own army, knowing that most of her Buddhist Burman supporters hate the Rohingya and would support these reprisals anyway? The latter is more likely, but either way this will have serious consequences for her.

For a start, she is quickly forfeiting the international goodwill that the NLD has built up over the years, especially in the West. Even the local regional organisation, ASEAN, has broken ranks, with majority-Muslim Malaysia denouncing the persecution of the Rohingya. More importantly however, by not reining in the army she is provoking the Rohingya, previously a largely peaceful people, into taking their defence into their own hands. The respected International Crisis Group has recently identified the first organised Rohingya ‘insurgent group’, which calls itself the Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement, HaY).

The ICG reports HaY is ‘led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics. It benefits from the legitimacy provided by local and international fatwas (religious judicial opinions) in support of its cause and enjoys considerable sympathy and backing from Muslims in northern Rakhine State, including several hundred locally trained recruits. The emergence of this well-organised, apparently well-funded group is a game-changer in the Myanmar government’s efforts to address the complex challenges in Rakhine State, which include longstanding discrimination against its Muslim population.

‘The current use of disproportionate military force in response to the attacks, which fails to adequately distinguish militants from civilians,’ the ICG continues, ‘is unlikely to dislodge the group and risks generating a spiral of violence and potential mass displacement… The fact that more people are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years rather than any sort of inevitability.’

Muslim residents evacuate their homes amid ongoing violence in Sittwe in June 2012
Muslim residents evacuate their homes amid ongoing violence in Sittwe in June 2012

Indeed, this will only play into the army’s hands, as the principal justification for the outsize role that they have carved for themselves in Myanmar’s polity is precisely to defeat such domestic insurgencies – to prevent, in their own oft-repeated words, the ‘disintegration of the union’.

The Rohingya crisis is merely entrenching the forces of reaction, whether the government intends it or not. Despite the apparent transfer to civilian rule a year ago, the army ensured that it retained control of three key ministries, defence, border affairs and home affairs, and it is exercising its prerogatives as much as it can. There is further evidence of this in Kachin and Shan states. There, long-running insurgencies have welled up again, with the army on the offensive against local ethnic militias.

As Yanghee Lee reported, ‘It is evident that the situation in Kachin and at the northern borders is deteriorating… the situation is now worse than at any point in the past few years. Whilst I was not able to travel to the areas most severely affected, the situation is now such that even in Myitkyina, the capital of the state and home to over 300,000 people, residents are afraid – and now stay home after dark.’

This fighting will probably scotch any further progress in achieving a nationwide peace agreement to end the country’s myriad civil wars, the so-called ‘Second Panglong’, in honour of the first Panglong agreed between Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, the founder of independent Burma, and the minority ethnic groups in 1947. A second Panglong was Suu Kyi’s priority for the new government, and a clear prerequisite for ensuring the continued flow of new investment into the country. Going backwards in this respect, as seems to be happening at the moment, would be a major blow to her prestige and credibility.

Curbing the army’s power was always going to be the new government’s most arduous task, but Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya crisis has made it even more difficult. One scholar on Myanmar, Renaud Egreteau, who recently published a study of the military’s role in Myanmar’s politics (Caretaking Democratization; The Military and Political Change in Myanmar), argues that for all the democratic triumphalism of the recent ‘transition’, the army was in fact never ready, or willing, to go back to barracks – ‘this doesn’t ever seem to have been envisioned in the commanding ranks of the military sphere’.

Unless, therefore, Suu Kyi takes a more strategic approach to the military conundrum, the generals could yet frustrate most of what she wants to achieve, and what the overwhelming majority of Burmese voted for in November 2015. At the moment she is getting the worst of all worlds: being condemned for atrocities that are carried out in her name, yet which she probably has little control over. Unless she finds a way to rally the country against the military, or to circumvent them, the endless cycle of political violence and counter-violence will continue. The only winners will be the stern and unbending men in battle fatigues.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist.

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