Why won’t Suu Kyi act on the tragedy in Rakhine?

Photo: Comune Parma/CC BY-SA 2.0

As international headlines fill with calls for action on ethnic violence in Rakhine, prominent human rights defender Aung San Suu Kyi remains unable to take action needed to stop the killings. She is weak in the face of the many flaws in Myanmar’s system.

By Argee Abadines

ASEAN pressure continues to pile onto Aung San Suu Kyi. Her government seems unable to quell the violence of alleged “genocide” of the Muslim Rohingya and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib has blasted her government that “enough is enough!

The problem of the so-called Rohingya has long been a thorn in her country’s side, and no political or humanitarian solution seems even close. Aung Myint, a member of Myanmar’s upper House of Parliament, argues that the so-called Rohingyas cannot speak the local language and do not look like Myanmar citizens. This apparently means there can be no path to a legal status for them in the country. That is clearly a violation of the ASEAN declaration on human rights.

The Lady also emphasises that the issue is highly sensitive and delicate. And while it is true that religion and years of history play a part in this problem, there has to be a sense of urgency on her part. She cannot just wait for the issue to die down and hope for the best. She won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work on democracy and human rights, but now we do not even know what she stands for.

She seems to have lost her moral compass and needs to get it back soon or else her positive international reputation will dissipate very quickly. If she continues to stay quiet on this issue, international pressure will impact Myanmar’s status as one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Perhaps the only real way the ASEAN community can be successful in putting pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar to act on the problem is to engage them bilaterally, taking conversations outside the media spotlight. That was the way they got Myanmar, formerly Burma, to come to the ASEAN table in the first place. Achieving this would strengthen the ASEAN community and boost their relevance on the world stage.

Understanding Aung Suu Kyi

One possible reason why Suu Kyi remains detached and quiet from the so-called Rohingya issue is that she knows it could send her political career into a nosedive. On one side she risks losing support from the Buddhist majority if she stands up for the ethnic Muslim group facing severe persecution. On the other, she knows that if she deviates from the government’s official stance on this issue, the restriction on foreign spouses which stops her running for the presidency may never be lifted.

Some political analysts also note that she is fresh from winning elections and Myanmar is still in a transitional stage. As a result, she might not have complete control over key government resources, and it will take time to exercise full control over this highly complicated crisis. Myanmar’s military still has significant power over the government because they have 25% of the seats in the country’s parliament, giving them right of veto in any push for amendments to the constitution. They are also in charge of appointing key ministers to run border affairs and defence.

Given this situation, the Lady remains hopelessly weak. She can neither change military officers nor command them to relinquish their actions against the so-called Rohingya camps. Given that she has not even reached a year being in power, she still needs time to win over the Generals and increase her influence. The truth is that whether or not she remains committed to the task of ensuring peace in her country, she is almost utterly unable to act.

The search for answers

In statements which emphasise  her troubles, she explains, “Our government is taking a holistic approach that makes development central to both short- and long-term programmes aimed at promoting understanding and trust.” She also seeks to direct the conversation away from her failures, saying, “In the Rakhine, it’s not just Muslims who are nervous and worried. The Rakhine are worried too.”

To have any success she needs a more urgent timeframe, a less defensive stance, and concrete plans. The world demands answers and Myanmar faces an uncertain future without specific actions.

It is also possible, she says, that international figures and the media sympathise too much with the so-called Rohingya Muslims. She argues that she has seen evidence of attacks on police officers from would-be jihadis who called for their Muslim brothers to join them. Exploring this has to be part of the Kofi Annan investigatory commission’s mandate.

It is true that while the international media has focused primarily on the persecution of the so-called Rohingya Muslims, there is scant coverage on Islam radicals possibly entrenched in the group. This gives legitimacy of fears of a serious radicalisation in the community if tensions are not diffused and their core issues of identity, citizenship and human rights not addressed.

International impacts

However, the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Myanmar is highly disturbing, and the leadership needs first to address this. She has to start changing the core narrative enveloping Myanmar: that the so-called Rohingya are just illegal settlers and not an ethnic group in Myanmar. Xenophobia might be the heart of this whole issue.

The problem for her, and her nation, is that this wave of hate is a dangerous position for Myanmar as an international player when 40% of ASEAN’s population is Muslim. As such, she cannot afford to see further protests, such as those in Malaysia or Indonesia, spiral out of control and prompt sanctions. Only more understanding of this complicated issue can yield a sustainable long-term solution to this problem, but the urgent action needed is for Myanmar’s authorities to end the violence.

The world will watch closely as Myanmar carefully considers its next steps. Will Aung San Suu Kyi finally rise to the challenge, risk her political support, and stand up for democracy and human rights just as she did when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991?