As persecution of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingyas accelerates, questions are being asked about why democracy icon and Nobel peace prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi does not act to stop the violence, writes Damien Kingsbury.
As 2017 begins to unfold, the persecution of Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingyas has accelerated. Since the beginning of the year, the UN says more than 20,000 Rohingyas had fled Myanmar’s western Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh ahead of state-organised violence, bringing the recent total to close to 70,000.
Human rights groups have described reports of organised anti-Rohingya violence as including the murder of whole families, sexual assault of women and burning of Rohingya villages. The attacks, organised by the military and police, followed assaults by an armed Rohingya group, Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), on government border posts late last year. The attacks were in response to previous ethnic cleansing of what the UN has described as one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.
With Myanmar’s change of government in November 2015, questions have been asked about why democracy icon and Nobel peace prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi does not act to stop the anti-Rohingya violence.
The first reason that Suu Kyi has not acted is because, while she is Myanmar’s foremost political figure, she has no direct authority in border security issues, which remain constitutionally under the purview of Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw. Perhaps more importantly, while Myanmar has made a, to date, successful transition from military to elected civilian-led government, the Tatmadaw retains considerable political and constitutional power.
Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won the 2015 elections, are mindful that while Myanmar’s political transition has so far been successful, it remains both fragile and a work in progress. The enthusiasm with which the international community has greeted Myanmar’s political changes has not acknowledged that, while they have been remarkable, they are also reversible.
Having weathered many serious political storms over the past two and a half decades, Suu Kyi has become an astute political leader and the team around her comprises seasoned veterans of Myanmar’s political struggle. She and they know that, for Myanmar to further consolidate its political changes, much less extend them, they need to tread carefully with the Tatmadaw, some members of which are less enthusiastic than others about Myanmar’s political transition.
It has been conventional wisdom in political transitions since the mid-1980s that they are most successful when they are led by a military reformer or a political conservative. The first stage of Myanmar’s political transition was overseen by President Thein Sein, who was previously a senior army general.
The second phase of Myanmar’s transition, to an elected civilian-led government, is nominally under President Htin Kyaw but is in practice led by State Councellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Htin Kyaw is a trusted adviser of Suu Kyi and works in close consultation with her.
Having traversed the political minefield that has been Myanmar’s political landscape over the past two and a half decades, Suu Kyi is nothing if not now cautious. She is, in a practical sense, being politically conservative, including working to establish constructive relations with the still powerful Tatmadaw.
Since the election of the civilian-led government, the Tatmadaw has ramped up its military operations against armed ethnic groups. This can be viewed, optimistically, as wanting to finally bring the state fully under centralised rule of law.
The Tatmadaw and police persecution of the Rohingya minority can, under this rubric, be viewed as a brutal and disprortionate extension of exercising its security function. That the Rohingya had their status as Myanmar citizens stripped from them under military rule in 1982 and remain overwhelmingly regarded within Myanmar as not belonging to the state means their persecution fits into a neat post-election ‘nationalist’ narrative.
Less positively, this increased military action can also be viewed as the Tatmadaw asserting its centrality in the security of the state and, indeed, creating conditions which require that ‘security’. Tatmadaw attacks on armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s northeast play to this, while heavy-handed persecution of the Rohingyas has eventually elicited an armed response which in turn also justifies the Tatmadaw’s ‘security’ function.
Beyond Suu Kyi’s desire to retain workable relations with the Tatmadaw, she also needs to retain support from the Burmese people. In this, one needs to make a distinction between Myanmar’s largest ethnic group, the Burmese (or ‘Bahmese’), and the country’s ethnic minorities. While the ethnic minorities have mixed and often less focused views on the Rohingyas, ethnic Burmese tend to be quite anti-Rohingya.
Reflecting what one diplomat has called ‘Burmese exceptionalism’, Buddhist Burmese tend to see themselves as the cultured centre surrounded by a less civilised periphery. In its less palatable forms, this has been manifested in what might be viewed as a Buddhist chauvinism, or Buddhist ultranationalism, manifested in intolerance of and racist attitudes towards non-Buddhists.
At the far end of this racist peripheral targeting are Muslims, particularly those whose background is more closely connected with South Asia than to other ethnic groups now occupying the area of Myanmar.
Suu Kyi has no interest in trying to restore that citizenship for fear of angering the military and alienating the large proportion of Burmese who regard the Rohingya with hostility
The Myanmar government claims that the Rohingyas are Bangladeshis. Previous generations of Bangladeshis crossed into what was then British-colonised Burma, often to work under British supervision. However, what is now Rahkine state has had a Muslim Rohingya population since at least the 15th century, long before it was invaded and occupied by pre-colonial Burmese.
Rohingyas were recognised as Burmese citizens until stripped of that citizenship by the military government in 1982. This was, in part, in response to calls by some Rohingya for the separation of Rakhine State. Suu Kyi has no interest in trying to restore that citizenship for fear of angering the military and alienating the large proportion of Burmese who regard the Rohingya with hostility.
It is not just that Suu Kyi is being politically cautious, either. At heart, Suu Kyi is and always has been a Burmese nationalist. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the key nationalist figure in founding an independent Burma (later Myanmar). Suu Kyi also sees herself as a Burmese nationalist and holds many of the beliefs and prejudices of other Burmese. Her adoption of her father’s name was but one gesture in that direction.
Aung San Suu Kyi has, over many years, demonstrated that she is a woman of conviction, determination and committed to bringing civilian rule to Myanmar. She also appears to have a commitment to notions of civil and political rights and, for many, has been held up as an icon for the aspiration of many not just in her country but around the world.
Like most politicians, however, Suu Kyi is also a person, with hopes, fears, beliefs and prejudices that are common to the people of whom she is one. Suu Kyi is Burmese, a Buddhist and a nationalist in the somewhat limited terms that apply in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi has also been a remarkable campaigner for democracy in Myanmar and, it is fair to say, desires a better outcome for all its citizens. Unfortunately, the Rohingya do not feature among them.
Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine State. Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Flickr