Myanmar’s new regime flounders over Rohingya crisis

September 30, 2017

The Big Read Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s new regime flounders over Rohingya crisis

Critics say an unwillingness to deal with the refugee crisis fits a broader pattern of faltering reforms and indecisive leadership

 by John Reed in Naypyidaw

A year ago this month, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, was welcomed to The White House on the slipstream of a historic election victory and an outpouring of international goodwill.

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The Lady and President Barack Obama in The White House

The former political prisoner, whose party had triumphed in a 2015 election, promised a fresh start built on the “true strength of our diversity”, for a country blighted by multiple ethnic insurgencies and decades of military rule.

Then President Barack Obama hailed “a new way of doing business and a new government”, as he lifted sanctions.

A year later, Myanmar’s international reputation, and that of its 72-year-old leader, are in tatters after a brutal military campaign by security forces in the western state of Rakhine that has made homeless nearly half a million mostly Muslim Rohingya over the space of a month.

The refugees streaming into Bangladesh have brought stories of mass killing, rape and torching of villages by security forces, which human rights campaigners say may amount to ethnic cleansing.

The most serious crisis since Myanmar began its transition to democracy in 2011, the conflict has left Aung San Suu Kyi caught between an international community demanding accountability and her own public, which is in a jingoistic and unforgiving mood.

It has also reinforced the fragile state of Myanmar’s incomplete democratic transition, which left the military with three key ministries, a quarter of seats in parliament and control over the army and police.

Burmese and foreign business people, diplomats and others interviewed by the Financial Times, some of whom spoke anonymously because of political sensitivities, are now voicing doubts as to whether Myanmar’s leader will be up to the task.

Worse, they fear that the Rohingya crisis could push Myanmar’s transition from five decades of military rule badly off course. For some of her critics, Aung San Suu Kyi had already proved to be a flawed leader on other counts before the Rohingya crisis erupted.

“In my view, Myanmar’s transition has birth defects — especially the constitutional arrangement of mixing elected government and the guardianship of the Tatmadaw [military],” says Ko Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Yangon. “If the elected civilian government cannot make attempts to change the game, the transition will die a slow death, in the graveyard of hybrid regimes.”


In her first speech on the crisis , in an auditorium with many empty seats in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s golf resort-like capital city, Aung San Suu Kyi said her government deserved more time, pointing out it had been in office for just under 18 months.

“We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she told diplomats and journalists in English, in a speech in which she sounded at times chiding, at others pleading. “We would like to talk to those who have fled, as well as those who have stayed.” The remarks gave the impression of a leader either out of touch with events in the western borderlands — which were being broadcast in real time on international news channels — or powerless to control them.

Amnesty International accused the Burmese leader of “burying her head in the sand”, while Human Rights Watch said her assertion that 50 per cent of Rakhine’s Muslim villages were intact after the violence amounted to a “failing grade”.


In her speech, Myanmar’s leader likened her country to a human body, urging the international community to address it and its problems as a whole, and “not just little afflicted areas”. She said: “It is as a whole only that we can make progress.”

Taking Myanmar as a whole, there are signs that suggest the patient is in a poor state indeed — and some of this is due to factors within her control. Local and foreign observers of Myanmar’s leader, including some who have known her for years, say she is a centralising micromanager who is failing to deliver on several counts.

After a growth spurt that accompanied a surge of inward investment amid the initial steps to democracy, the economy has slowed.

“Either she’s not letting them [her advisers] do their jobs, or she’s not listening to them,” says Khin Zaw Win, an analyst and former political prisoner. “She is obstinate, very self-centred, and undemocratic, but people worship her.”

When Aung San Suu Kyi took power last year after a landslide victory for her National League for Democracy, her administration faced a daunting agenda: calls to reform the 2008 constitution that gives the military the upper hand over civilian governments; pressure for federalism from restive border regions; the need to retool an economy stunted by five decades of isolation.

She took office in the new role of state counsellor because her foreign family members bar her from the presidency. She took three other ministerial jobs, foreign affairs, education and energy, but has since relinquished control over the last two.

Myanmar’s leader put her primary emphasis on a peace process meant to continue the legacy of her father, the Independence leader Aung San, and resolve decades-old insurgencies with minority groups in states that fringe Myanmar’s largely Buddhist, Burmese-speaking heartland. The Rohingya issue is not part of that process.

On the economy, the government claims to have notched up some achievements: bringing down inflation and the budget deficit, and taking a tough line on official graft that was rampant under the former military regime.

“They have been absolutely serious about corruption, especially at the high levels,” says Sean Turnell, an Australian academic who is advising the state counsellor’s administration.

At the central and state government level, however, Aung San Suu Kyi was saddled with a legacy of bureaucrats who served the old regime. In choosing her own ministers, businesspeople and diplomats say she has prioritised loyalty and opposition credentials over fresh blood or real-world experience in areas such as business or law.

“The average age of the executive leadership is pretty high, which means they come with a socialist mindset,” says one international banker active in Myanmar. “She has gone for people who she believes are loyal to her and not corrupt, but the pace of economic reform has suffered because the executive leadership is weak and the bureaucracy is loyal to the former government.”

Because of her long exile, then 15 years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is herself strikingly short on basic work experience — apart from a junior UN job she held as a young woman.

The new administration’s limited skills base, combined with the tough line the “Lady” is taking on corruption, has made some ministers either unequipped to tackle spending projects or loath to promote them for fear of accusations of being on the take.

“They don’t have any data sources to evolve policy, so they aren’t very confident making decisions,” says Aung Tun, a consultant to international development agencies in Yangon.

Meanwhile, civil society groups and Myanmar’s Muslim community, who make up about 4 per cent of the population, have criticised Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration for doing little to calm the country’s sectarian tensions.

Myanmar saw deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2013, before her administration took power, and some worry that violence could recur in the event of a bombing or other attack inside the country by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant group whose attacks on police posts and an army base last month prompted the brutal crackdown.

The Burma Human Rights Network this month published research saying that conditions for the Rohingya had worsened in the four years since, and alleged “ongoing systematic persecution” of Muslims well into the current period of pseudo-civilian rule, including a sharp rise in villages erecting signs declaring themselves “Muslim-free”.

“They need some kind of action against ultranationalist groups, who are very dangerous for the transition process,” says Aung Ko Ko, head of Mosaic Myanmar, a civil society group that promotes tolerance between Buddhists and minority Muslims and Christians.

The de facto leader has called for tolerance but in last week’s speech (as in past ones) used cautious language that did not refer to specific religious or ethnic groups, presumably to avoid estranging ethnic Bamar Buddhists, who form the core of her support.

Some observers of Aung San Suu Kyi say the assumptions underpinning western support were flawed from the beginning: the outside world put too much faith in a figure with the instincts of an old-school Asian dynastic leader.

Even so, they say she is Myanmar’s best hope for now. “We’d be really dumb to throw away the democratic transition in Burma over the situation in Rakhine, over which she has very little control,” says a senior diplomat in Yangon.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters believe she is being judged too harshly given her lack of influence over the military. “The context of our country’s situation is different from other countries around the world,” says U Nyan Win, a senior official with the NLD in Yangon. “We can’t control what’s happening on the ground, especially in battle zones.”

Members of the leader’s circle, speaking privately, say the outside world — in pressuring her to speak out more forcefully on Rakhine — is underestimating the fragility of the democratic transition in Myanmar, where the military could still retake power.

However, others discount this, pointing out that the military already has enough real power, not to mention the economic benefits from companies they control. The question is whether the crisis will deliver a blow to investor confidence, already shaky to start with.

Aung Tun Lin, chair of the Myanmar Tourist Guides Association, says foreign tour groups have cancelled roughly 15-20 per cent of pre-booked tours due to what he describes as “fake news” about Rakhine. His group says tourism brings more than $2bn annually in revenues, or 3 per cent of gross domestic product.

Business people say the crisis could also dent foreign investment. “You wanted to make a $100m investment in Myanmar?” says a western executive in Yangon. “In your annual report, you’re going to have to defend that position.”However, most multinationals were steering clear of Myanmar. The biggest foreign investors have been from China, Japan and other Asian countries, most of which have hesitated to criticise the military campaign.

“In terms of economics, the effects won’t be as great as people expect,” says Mr Turnell, the adviser. “Western investment mostly hasn’t been here anyway.”

The Guardian view on the Rohingya in Myanmar

September 9, 2017


The Guardian view on the Rohingya in Myanmar: the Lady’s failings, the military’s crimes

The Guardian view on the Rohingya in Myanmar: the Lady’s failings, the military’s crimes


“When the safety of one’s country is at  stake,there must be no scruple of justice or mercy or blame;on the contrary, one should wholly pursue that policy that saves the life of the state and preserves its liberty,regardless of any other consideration.”–Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 9. Does this apply to Aung Sun Suu Kyi re The Rohingyas?

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The killing and abuse of civilians is a crime against humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi must speak out – but this violence is the army’s

Aung San Suu Kyi’s long silence over the desperate plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been shameful. With tens of thousands now fleeing atrocities in Rakhine state, the Nobel peace prize winner’s aura of moral sanctity lies in tatters. The Muslim minority are denied citizenship by a government which claims, against the evidence, that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. After decades of discrimination, matters got much worse. Since 2012 the Rohingya have endured not just immiseration and the denial of basic rights and services – many live in internment camps – but three major waves of violence by government forces and Buddhist Burman nationalists. Myanmar’s de facto leader has turned a blind eye.

Speak up, people have urged her. Do something. So far her words and actions have been as bad as her reticence. The government has blocked access to United Nations human rights investigators and aid workers. A post on her Facebook page blamed “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the current violence. Whether she shares the widespread prejudice towards the Rohingya is a moot question: she does not challenge it. Perhaps the populist Islamophobic forces thriving elsewhere encourage such indifference. On Wednesday, shortly after she met Narendra Modi – no stranger to condoning and exploiting vicious Islamophobia – India’s Prime Minister said his country shared Myanmar’s concerns about “extremist violence” in Rakhine state.

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Elegantly said, Madam, but meaningless. Your long silence over the desperate plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar has been shameful. 

The Rohingya were already described as the most persecuted people in the world and hundreds of thousands had escaped to Bangladesh, where their conditions are dire. Many have warned of the dangers of radicalisation and attacks on police by a new militant group late last month sparked a wave of violence by government forces. In less than a fortnight, more than 160,000 – from a population of something over 1 million – have fled. Officials say the hundreds who have died in this “clearance operation” are mostly insurgents who have torched Rohingya villages themselves. But there is widespread evidence that the death toll is far higher and most are civilians. Survivors of one massacre told the Guardian of infants and the elderly shot or thrown into the water to drown. Others have spoken of entire families burned alive in their homes. A UN report earlier this year accused security forces of similar crimes. But this violence is on an immense, unprecedented scale.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, is pushing hard for concerted action and warns of the risk of ethnic cleansing (several Nobel peace prize laureates say that point has already been reached). But Myanmar has said openly that it is working with China and Russia to prevent a security council rebuke.

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Aung San Suu Kyi cannot halt the atrocities at a command. Despite her landslide electoral victory, the military controls key government functions and apparatus on paper as well as in reality – notably security. But a leader who rose to power armed with only her words and moral authority can and should use them in a cause – human rights – which she purported to champion. She is able to shape Burmese public opinion, and to channel it towards curbing the military. A leader who embraced and exploited the support of the international community cannot dismiss its concerns so casually. She is able to press foreign backers to exert more pressure on the armed forces.

Her cloak of virtue has helped to shield them from scrutiny and accountability. The danger is that now her shortcomings will divert attention. The military’s head, Min Aung Hlaing, has no pedestal to topple from. Few even know his name. But they should; he is the man who calls the shots. Finding ways to exert pressure on the military is essential. Suspending the UK’s training of Myanmar’s army would be a good start.

Aung San Suu Kyi has a moral duty to protect the Rohingya. She has ducked it. But she is only a small part of the problem, and of a solution that remains all too distant.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s inexcusable silence

May 29, 2015

Aung San Suu Kyi’s inexcusable silence

by Mehdi Hasan

*Mehdi Hasan is an award-winning British journalist, author, social commentator and the presenter of Head to Head.

Aung San Su Kyi

In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize … to Aung San Suu Kyi,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in 1991, it wished “to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means”. Suu Kyi, the Committee added, was “an important symbol in the struggle against oppression”.

Fast forward 24 years, and the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar might disagree with the dewy-eyed assessment of the five-member Nobel Committee. And with Gordon Brown, too, who called Suu Kyi “the world’s most renowned and courageous prisoner of conscience”. Not to mention Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has said that the people of Myanmar “desperately need the kind of moral and principled leadership that Aung San Suu Kyi would provide”.

In recent years, the Rohingya Muslims – “the world’s most persecuted minority”, according to the United Nations – have struggled to attract attention to their plight.

Until, that is, a few weeks ago, when thousands of Rohingya refugees began arriving in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, while thousands more believed to be still stranded on rickety boats off the coasts of these three countries, with dwindling supplies of food and clean water.

‘So hungry, so skinny’

“Fisherman Muchtar Ali broke down in tears when he set eyes on theBoat People 4 overcrowded boat carrying desperate, starving Rohingya off the coast of Indonesia,” noted a report by AFP on May 20.”I was speechless,” Ali told AFP. “Looking at these people, me and my friends cried because they looked so hungry, so skinny.”

These Rohingya “boat people”, however, are a symptom of a much bigger problem. As Kate Schuetze, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Researcher, has observed: “The thousands of lives at risk should be the immediate priority, but the root causes of this crisis must also be addressed. The fact that thousands of Rohingya prefer a dangerous boat journey they may not survive to staying in Myanmar speaks volumes about the conditions they face there.”

Those oppressive conditions range from a denial of citizenship to Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims to severe restrictions on their movement, employment and access to education and healthcare, as well as a discriminatory law imposing a “two child” limit on Rohingya families in their home state of Rakhine.

Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression of her fellow countrymen and women, not to mention the violence meted out to them by Buddhist extremists … makes her part of the problem, not the solution.

Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes; their towns and villages razed to the ground by rampaging mobs. In 2014, the government even banned the use of the word “Rohingya”, insisting the Muslim minority, who have lived in that country for generations, be registered in the census as “Bengali”.

Inexcusable silence

So, where does Suu Kyi fit into all this? Well, for a start, her silence is inexcusable. Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression of her fellow countrymen and women, not to mention the violence meted out to them by Buddhist extremists inspired by the monk Ashin Wirathu (aka “The Burmese Bin Laden”), makes her part of the problem, not the solution.

Boat People 2“In a genocide, silence is complicity, and so it is with Aung San Suu Kyi,” observed Penny Green, a law professor at the University of London and Director of the State Crime Initiative, in a recent op-ed for The Independent. Imbued with “enormous moral and political capital”, Green argued, Myanmar’s opposition leader could have challenged “the vile racism and Islamophobia which characterises Burmese political and social discourse”.

She didn’t. Instead, she spent the past few years courting the Buddhist majority of Myanmar, whose votes she needs in order to be elected president in 2016 – if, that is, the military will allow her to be elected president, or even permit her to stand – by playing down the violence perpetrated against the Muslim minority, and trying to suggest a false equivalence between persecutors and victims of persecution.

In a BBC interview in 2013, for example, Suu Kyi shamefully blamed the violence on “both sides”, telling interviewer Mishal Husain that “Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence”.

Yet in Myanmar, it isn’t Buddhists who have been confined to fetid camps, where they are “slowly succumbing to starvation, despair and disease”. It isn’t Buddhists who have been the victims of what Human Rights Watch calls “ethnic cleansing” and what the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar has said “could amount to crimes against humanity”. It isn’t Buddhists who are crowding onto boats, to try and flee the country, and being assaulted with hammers and knives as they do so. It isn’t Buddhists, to put it bluntly, who are facing genocide.

Risk of ‘genocide’

Is this mere hyperbole? If only. Listen to the verdict of investigators Boat People 3from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “We left Burma,” they wrote in a report published earlier this month, “deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place.”

The investigators, who visited Rohingya internment camps and interviewed the survivors of violent attacks, concluded: “Genocide will remain a serious risk for the Rohingya if the government of Burma does not immediately address the laws and policies that oppress the entire community.”

Yet, despite the boats and the bodies, the reports and the revelations, Suu Kyi is still mute. She hasn’t raised a finger to help the Rohingya, as they literally run for their lives. Shouldn’t we expect more from a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

Maybe not. The words “Henry” and “Kissinger” come to mind. Plus, the Nobel Prize Committee has a pretty awkward history of prematurely handing out peace prizes. Remember Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat’s joint prize in 1994? Ask the children of Gaza how that worked out. Remember Barack Obama’s in 2009? Ask the civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan how that worked out.

Rabin, Arafat, Obama … ultimately, of course, they’re all politicians. Suu Kyi was supposed to be something else, something more; a moral icon, a human rights champion, a latter-day Gandhi.

Sad truth

Why weren’t we listening when the opposition leader and former political prisoner told CNN in 2013 that she had “been a politician all along”, that her ambition was to become president of her country?

The sad truth is that when it comes to “The Lady”, it is well past time to take off the rose-tinted glasses. To see Suu Kyi for what she is: A former prisoner of conscience, yes, but now a cynical politician who is willing to put votes ahead of principles; party political advancement ahead of innocent Rohingya lives.

“Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless,” Suu Kyi grandly declaimed in June 2012, as she finally accepted her Nobel Peace Prize, in person, 21 years after she won it while under house arrest, “a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace”.

Forget the world. She should try starting at home, with the Rohingya of Rakhine. And if she won’t, or can’t, then maybe she should consider handing back the prize she waited more than two decades to collect.

Mehdi Hasan is a presenter for Al Jazeera English.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.