Aung San Suu Kyi, until recently a darling of the Western media and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize has undergone a reputational crisis of late.
Admired by many in the West for her struggles for democracy in Myanmar and for her 15 years spent under house arrest, Suu Kyi represented peace, dignity and the power of non-violent protest and her election in 2015 was hailed as a triumph for progress. Myanmar’s ‘Nelson Mandela’ has in the past few months however experienced a spectacular fall from grace.
The crisis facing the Rohingya people is now “verging on ethnic cleansing” according to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country and the Rohingya are an estimated 1 million of mostly Muslim people who are not recognised under Myanmar law, leaving them effectively without a nationality. The legal conditions faced by the Rohingya have been compared to apartheid.
the Rohingya are an estimated 1 million of mostly Muslim people who are not recognised under Myanmar law, leaving them effectively without a nationality
The most recent flare-up of violence started after a Rohingya rebel group; ARSA or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, led multiple attacks on police outposts and border guards, killing a dozen government forces, at the cost of over 50 dead among the rebels.
In response the Myanmar military in conjunction with local authorities and mobs of Rakhine Buddhists started massive reprisals against Rohingya villages that it described as anti-terrorist “clearance operations.” Within the first three to four weeks the military reported over 400 dead, the UN estimated over 1,000, and other sources suggested as many as 3,000.
As a minority ethnic group, the Rohingya have long faced persecution, but the violence against them in recent weeks has reached levels that some compare to a genocide. Current estimates put the number of refugees who have fled the country at 420,000. Suu Kyi has been heavily criticised both for initially failing to speak out against the violence and then for comments she has since made downplaying the crisis, including blaming “terrorists” for a “huge iceberg of misinformation.” Her government has also blocked humanitarian aid to Rakhine.
the violence against the Rohingya in recent weeks has reached levels that some compare to a genocide
In her speech last week Aung San Suu Kyi aimed to reassure the world that human rights violators would be punished and that her government was committed to restoring peace and stability in Rakhine. She also asked the international community for help, offering to work with Bangladesh in repatriating refugees – but only if they could prove citizenship in Myanmar.
However, she also insisted that “the security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid the harming of innocent civilians.” This is blatantly untrue. Whilst this outbreak of violence was initially triggered by the operation of ARSA militants, the Myanmar military has gone above and beyond merely self-defence.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 refugees in September and their accounts detail armed attacks on villagers, the burning down of their homes and the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks.
armed attacks on villagers, the burning down of their homes and the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks
Furthermore, her statement that no “clearance operations” have been conducted since 5 September beggars belief amid mounting evidence suggesting otherwise.
The government maintains that is has acted in self defense against “terrorists” and that tens of thousands of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists have also been internally displaced, claiming they were attacked by Rohingya militants. This has been denied by ARSA.
On Sunday, Myanmar’s army said it had discovered two mud pits filled with 28 Hindu corpses, including women and children, outside a village in northern Rakhine.
The horror of the conflict aside, why has Suu Kyi not condemned such violence? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, her response is condoning the actions of the military.
Should we be surprised by this however? Suu Kyi has a history of failing to speak out against the violence suffered by the Rohingya, but this fact has been generally overlooked.
Her actions are largely influenced by the delicate balance of power in Myanmar between her government and the military. While Myanmar citizens have experienced an unprecedented degree of economic and political freedom since the reforms of 2011 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s election in 2015 the balance of power has not changed greatly. Many MPs are former military leaders who have simply swapped uniform for suits.
It is generally contended that Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent on the treatment of the Rohingya for reasons of political expediency. In a country that is 90% Buddhist, Buddhist-Muslim relations were and remain a contentious issue.
However political motive is far too straightforward a solution. A more convincing explanation for her stance can be found when one considers her agreement in December 2011 to abide by Burma’s constitution. As Peter Popham explains, the document had been imposed on the country in 2008 through a rigged referendum. “Uniquely difficult to revise, it guaranteed the military massive representation in parliament, exclusive control of three crucial ministries – home, defence, and border affairs – and the right to shut down democracy and revert to junta tyranny at the generals’ whim.”
Suu Kyi herself explained that the constitution “gives the army a right to take over all powers of government whenever they feel it’s necessary”. Simply put, she has no right to overrule the military.
Her commitment to the constitution notwithstanding, can she be excused for leading a country that is currently committing; according to the top UN Human Rights official, “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”? In her role as de-facto leader of the country, she bears ultimate responsibility. She may not have the authority or power to overrule the military but she does have a voice. Staying put while atrocities are committed on her watch is unacceptable. She should resign.