The Tragedy of Aung San Suu Kyi

September 16, 2017

The Tragedy of Aung San Suu Kyi

by  Syed Munir Khasru

*Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG), an international think tank.

The escalating campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s military in Rakhine State is threatening to undermine the country’s ongoing democratic transition – and to tarnish irrevocably the reputation of the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But she still wields enough moral authority to act.

DHAKA – Myanmar is in crisis. The Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic minority group in a predominantly Buddhist country – are under attack by the military, with many fleeing for their lives. This escalating conflict is threatening to undermine Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition – and to tarnish irrevocably the reputation of the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

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For decades, Myanmar’s government has refused to recognize the Rohingya – who comprise around 2% of the country’s population of over 50 million – as a legitimate ethnic minority, denying them citizenship and even the most basic rights as inhabitants. But it was just last month that systematic discrimination escalated into ethnic cleansing, with security forces responding to attacks on police posts and an army camp by Rohingya militants by launching an assault on all Rohingya people.

So far, Myanmar has confirmed 400 deaths, though United Nations officials put the toll closer to 1,000. Moreover, upwards of 300,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Several thousand more Rohingya are waiting at the border, awaiting permission to enter the country.

For a Bangladesh already reeling from seasonal flooding, managing the inflow of refugees has proved a momentous challenge. Makeshift camps are overcrowded, lacking in basic resources, and vulnerable to natural disasters; already, a cyclone has destroyed some camps. Other surrounding countries, including India, Thailand, and Malaysia, are also feeling the effects of the Rohingya’s plight.

Far from moving to stop this humanitarian crisis, Suu Kyi’s government has exacerbated it. While Suu Kyi does not control the military, which is leading the murderous crackdown, her government has blocked UN agencies from delivering vital emergency supplies. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have all been forced to halt work in the affected areas.

This represents a tragic departure for Suu Kyi, who previously won international acclaim – and a Nobel Peace Prize – for her role in the fight for democracy in Myanmar. The rise to power of her National League for Democracy in 2015 marked the end of 50 years of military rule in the country formerly known as Burma, and seemed to herald a new era, in which the human rights of all inhabitants would be respected and protected.

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Amid the violence against the Rohingya, faith in Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy is rapidly deteriorating. The military, which holds 25% of the seats in parliament, has already blocked Suu Kyi from becoming president, and, along with Myanmar’s nationalists, it continues to constrain her authority. Now, the military is actively persecuting and even murdering members of one of the country’s largest ethnic and religious minority groups, in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has rightly called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – all for political reasons.

Buddhist nationalism has lately been gaining traction among many Burmese, fueling hatred and violence toward the Muslim Rohingya. By attacking the Rohingya, the military secures the support of Buddhist monks, who remain influential in Myanmar and could thus challenge the military’s authority.

As for Suu Kyi, she is now between a rock and a hard place. If she sides with the Rohingya, she will face a powerful backlash from the military and a large share of voters. But, by remaining silent, she is severely damaging the moral authority that allowed her to wear down Myanmar’s generals and place the country on the path to democracy.

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Suu Kyi did appoint a commission, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to figure out how to address the divisions between the Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. But her goal appeared to be simply to buy time, though she probably also hoped that Annan would find a way to resolve her dilemma.

Of course, that was impossible. Instead, the commission called for the immediate establishment by Suu Kyi’s government of a clear, transparent, and efficient strategy and timeline for the citizenship verification process. The commission also emphasized the need to “allow full and unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas affected by recent violence.”

Myanmar’s military made clear its stance on these proposals right after the report was released: it opened fire on Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine, leaving at least 100 people dead. The massacre was ostensibly a response to an attack by Rohingya militants that killed 12 members of the security forces, though, as al-Hussein put it, the military’s actions were “clearly disproportionate.”

What Myanmar needs today is a genuine peace process that recognizes the ethnic and religious components of the Rohingya crisis. Suu Kyi, who was praised by the Nobel Committee in 1991 as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless,” should be the person to lead such a process. Yes, her power is severely limited, as she has no authority whatsoever over the military. Yet her moral authority, which once proved powerful enough to bend the military to her will, is not entirely depleted.

To wield that authority effectively, Suu Kyi must be willing to take a political risk. To be sure, as delicate as the political order is in Myanmar, there is no gridlock that obviates an agenda for progress in achieving peace. But a peace process will require Suu Kyi to stand up to Myanmar’s generals, as she has done in the past, reminding them of the enormous benefits they have reaped from the political transition and convincing them that it is not in their interest to jeopardize the democratization process.

Suu Kyi said in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 2012, “to be forgotten, is to die a little.” She must not allow the Rohingya to be driven out and forgotten. Her task is to give power to the powerless and bring peace to Myanmar.

12 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Aung San Suu Kyi

  1. There are many factual errors in this piece, but i’ll just concentrate on the most obvious:

    1. ‘Myanmar is in crisis’ – Nope. The Rohingya as an ethnic and cultural entity is in crisis. Burma as a nation doesn’t care two hoots as long as the rid themselves of this dehumanized, marginalized and persecuted minority which is a holdover from British colonization. If any blame is to be apportioned, it is the British and Lord Mountbatten.
    2. The Tragedy of ASSK – Nope. She knows her limitations well. Not only is the Tatmadaw, Sangha, Bamar Buddhist laity and other tribes against appeasement and acceptance of the Rohingya, but also the nationalists within her own NLD party.
    3. ‘.. she is now between a rock and a hard place. If she sides with the Rohingya, she will face a powerful backlash from the military’ – For all you know she has tacitly encouraged the Tatmadaw and the Rakhine/Bamar.
    4. Revoke her Nobel prize – Big Deal.. As a Buddhist she really doesn’t care, i assure you. Only those folk who are ‘Beholden to God’, will be upset. Perhaps those other winners like Malala and her ilk, should have their traumatized heads re-examined.
    5. UN Sanctions – Not likely as PRC has thrown in their support for the Union. And so will Russia. The US can’t be bothered, as long as any sloganeering makes ‘America Great Again’. And the UK and France are just making polite burping and other digestive noises.
    6. The role of ASEAN – None, except to provide refugee shelter and to process the refugees with UNHCR – if anyone wants to accept them.
    7. The role of OIC – None. Because they are more interested in guarding their hoard or else fighting each another. Muslims and therefore Ummah aren’t they? Ya, but Takdir A***h! As in the 2004 Tsunami disaster and Darfur genocide.
    8. All Muslims are being targeted in Burma, as we speak. That is also Takdir A***h.
    9. This is not about Morality or Ethics – this is about Politics and Nationalistic agenda. Make Burma Great Again! Tuangoo Dynasty and all that..
    10. Burma is a democracy – Nope. Not like what Westerners or WOGs envision. It remains a Stratocracy (a government traditionally or constitutionally run by a military) with a veneer of popular vote elections.

    For all the ignorance, hypocrisy, yodeling and conspiracy claims – only destitute Bangladesh is left to face the onslaught. Maybe Norway too, but it doesn’t have a big stick – and Nortel, their communications MNC are heavily invested in Burma’s ITC.

    Perhaps, the only solution is to let the Rohingya settle in all those devastated swathes in MENA, where they will starve, thirst and perish. Somewhat akin to the Armenian Genocide that Turkey insists never happened. Cruel?

    Yup. But many ingenous folks don’t know the horrendous deprivation, internal displacement and ethnic cleansing against the Christian Chin, Kachin; Buddhist Shan, Mon; Ethnic Chinese Kokang and Panthay; shamanic Palaung, do they?

    Then, there are rumors that our most munificent dPM wanted to ship the Rohingya refugees to Serian and Bau Districts in Sarawak. The Sarawakian government balked. Didn’t i tell you this bloke has the IQ of a nematode?

    • Cant get any clearer CLF and hope others will begin to look deeper and analyse the situation better before crying foul for Syu Kii.

    • Your matter of fact and heartless rendition of the plight of the Rohingia is in stark contrast to your Christian’s belief.I am sure Christ will not condone you merciless attitude.

  2. CLF has hit the nail on the head. Myanmar has gone through so many crisis with uprisings and when the military was attacked they retaliated to nip the problem in the bud. Even the Pakistanis doesn’t enfranchise the Rohingyas.
    Our gomen is crazy to want to take in more Rihingyas. All you need to do is to take a walk around the tourist areas like KLCC, Bukit Bintang, Jalna TAR and beggers with pityful children. Is this the dream we are trying to flog to the refugees?

  3. A year or so ago Aung San Suu Kyi was asked by a western reporter why she didn’t help the Rohingya. Her answer was: “Those people do not belong here.” She went on to point out that it was the western press who made her out to be fighter for the rights of others, but she herself had never claimed any such. Western governments and their media love to put other countries’ dissidents on a pedestal, projecting onto them their own beliefs, agendas and ideals. It’s not surprising, then, that when circumstances change, those same dissidents, when they are no longer dissidents, are very different from what many Westerners have made them out to be.

    Aung San Suu Kyi is the example. Having made her one of the world’s great democracy icons, the West has become disenchanted now that she is the effective leader of Myanmar and is going along with its military’s scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya. But far from being sidelined by the military, Suu Kyi has long held the official view that the Rohingya are “Bengali” nationalists being led to
    sedition by “terrorists”. What strikes me about the torrents of criticism of Suu Kyi now engulfing western media is the sense of betrayal. “We honored you and fought for your freedom – and now you use that freedom to condone the butchery of your own people?” thundered Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times.

    That feeling is in some sense inevitable. We’re perhaps not used to seeing such a fallen angel. I suspect there’s a mythology that’s led us here – one that demands a hero, then requires her to be created in our own image, and one that’s destined to render Suu Kyi a villain just as passionately, when that image proves to be a mirage. Kristof’s lament that “the moral giant has become a pragmatic politician” seems a strange one. What if Suu Kyi was that politician all along? “Please don’t forget that I started out as the leader of a political party,” she said in 2013 after a similar bout of criticism. “I cannot think of anything more political than that.” Of course, her situation is more complex. Whatever she says about the Rohingya will come at a colossal price. This “ethnic cleansing campaign”, as claimed by western media, sits atop a cultural consensus in Myanmar that regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants of a sub-national status. To challenge this consensus in any way would be an act of political suicide, leading her supporters to abandon her. To the extent she rules, she rules over a thoroughly disintegrating nation, held together only by a unity pact with the military. She cannot afford to be on a collision course with the military – to take it on may be to risk the collapse of the whole country.

    We cannot find in Suu Kyi’s history any specific statement on the Rohingya affirming their place as part of Myanmar. In fact, we don’t hear her speaking out either about the Shan, the Karen, the Mon, the Kachin, and other ethnic minorities on the geo-political space called Burma by the British colonizers. Suu Kyi is an ethnic Bamar; the army is largely ethnic Bamar. Neither will countenance anything but ethnic Bamar primacy. Turns out that on the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has always been silent. Why should we be suddenly shocked if it turns out she acquiesces to, or even shares, the views of the people who voted for her? She never really promised us otherwise. Perhaps she was most instructive when she said: “I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons.” If you’re expecting otherwise, I suppose you’re bound to feel betrayed.

    I was in Burma in the late 90s, tacking along with my Burmese community leaders friends from the Bay Area, when Suu Kyi was not under house arrest and thus accessible. I remember a conversation with a journalist who had been able to get an interview with Suu Kyi. He asked her what she planned to do about the Rohingya issue, to which the reply was to the effect of “Well they can jump up and down all they like but I’ve got bigger fish to fry”. I also had the opportunity to visit Northern Rakhine State at that time to see for myself the situation. Upon return to Rangoon I happened to meet one of the staff of Secretary-One Khin Nyunt’s Directorate of Defence Security and Intelligence (DDSI), to whom I described the human rights abuses I had witnessed in Northern Rakhine State. His matter-of-fact reply was along the lines of “well, we have to stop them somewhere”. The reference was not to Muslims, of whom there are plenty in Yangon able to go about their business unharassed, but to South Asians, whose exploding population growth, especially in newly-independent Bangladesh in the early 1970s, caused fears of unstoppable migration south east from Bangladesh. The problem actually goes back to the British colonial era, when the border was decided to be the Naf River, thus stranding the Rohingya, ethnically closer to Bengalis than the Arakanese on Myanmar’s west coast and Islamic and speaking a Chittagonian dialect, in the wrong country.

    Most of what I’ve learned about Myanmar was mainly from conversations with my Burmese friends rather than reading about the country, over a few beers and sharing some roast ducks. Most of my Burmese friends were formerly government high officials or Burmese military officers. Of course they are full of Bamar biases. Short of UN PeaceKeepers going into Myanmar, I don’t see any solution, especially now they’ve discovered the marine resources (gas) in the Bay of Bengal.

    • I would like to repeat what I said earlier. What life can we offer to the refugees in Malaysia. A life of begging and uncertainty and of course future problems from people who have nothing to lose. Maybe MO1 can ask POTUS to help receive the Rohingya refugees.

  4. Yes , excellent insight by CLF , kudos to you my friend. We learn the ridiculous situation the Rohingyas are in , sandwiched on both sides of the divide.

    Tell us something : (as i read somewhere ) – they were actually the Arkan people who had been there (first) @ least two thousand earlier , before the Bangladeshis & the Burmese people ‘ ;invaded ‘ into their Territory , simply because the Arkans had been living by way of the Aboragenal communities of the ancient or primitive humans , before actual civilisation began to evolve the human race …..

    Is that a correct perspective , they had been ‘ sandwiched ‘ in between ( to that effect ) ? TQ .

    • The Rohingya are not autochthonous (aboriginal, indigenous) in Arakan. They were the result of migrations from Bangladesh since the early 15-16th century, while some are the progeny of Arab traders from the 8-9th century CE. Their language is that of the Chittagong dialect of S.E Bengali and they are using a written form derived from Persian/Arabic script and Latin, Burmese alphabets. A minority are Hindu.

      Most are what we in Island SE Asia, call ‘Peranakan’, except they don’t speak Bamar as their first language, and their cultural and linguistic ties were stronger with present day Bangladesh.

      During the Colonial days, they were highly regarded due to their literacy – just like the Chin, and were capable civil servants and even legislators. They were like many other tribes, pro-British during WW 2 – while ASSK’s father was vacillating between the Japs and Allies.

      Since then, they have been played out by both the British and Bamar. They were suffering Apartheid even before the term was coined. It is a humanitarian disaster caused by ultra-nationalism and political opportunism, especially when they do not have a Big Brother to depend on.

      What we should be discussing now is how to overcome the genocide and truly help these people, instead of just whacking the Burmese Government who will remain recalcitrant, no matter all the hypocritical moral outrage.

      Muslim fundamentalism is the last thing anyone wants – but let me assure you the Tatmadaw is more than capable of taking on any martyrs, suicide bombers, Daesh, Al Qaeda etc. They have no scruples and are a law unto themselves.

  5. Once you allow the military out of the barracks it very difficult to put them back in there. What do we do? Those who come to power through the ballot box must rule in accordance with the constitution. They should not move the goal post as when they cannot score a goal. Remember that the Military will be able to score a few goals when the goal post is moved to a new position.

  6. @ CLF , again its a classic ! you have put it in a comprehensive manner , thus attaining a great degree of Coherence, – (this represent to me as being Acropetal , like climbing the everest , and takes us to the ” pinnacle ‘ , of the immensity of the problems in the Rakhine ) .

    A good research you have undertaken , to try & ease the mind-boggling ‘sufferings ‘ in the region ….. , if at all Mankind can be of any help ….yea , IF AT ALL ! ! –

    How does ‘ God ‘ help us ? – only God knows …..

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