Nowhere to turn: Why Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership is doomed to fail

Photo: Comune Parma/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human rights defender lies in tatters as the ordeal of the so-called Rohingya Muslim group plays out on the borders of Myanmar. She is hopelessly tied between the need to placate the military and the demands of the outside world, leaving her to dance straight towards a dark and dangerous failure. 

By Argee Abadines

Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed the leadership test. Again. Despite her party’s historic win in 2015, and hope for human rights and fundamental freedoms, it is clear that her government is not looking to end the genocide of the so-called Rohingyas.

Instead of proactively allowing humanitarian aid into the affected areas, access for humanitarian groups remains restricted and a curfew is still in place. This needs to change. In fact, in the face of her shocking inaction, there is growing unhappiness that she still holds her Nobel Prize prize and online petitions calling for it to be taken away. According to Matthew Smith of NGO Fortify rights, “the authorities have no defensible reason to block aid. It’s inhumane, pure and simple.”

The struggle for Suu Kyi is that although she has control over foreign affairs, and could easily get travel authorisations for aid workers, doing so would lose her popularity and political goodwill with the military. At the end of the day, the army’s influence in Myanmar remains immense and they are likely to refuse humanitarian aid into the area – travel permits or otherwise. It is almost certain that giving aid workers access would lead to more evidence and accounts of abuse, murder, and starvation; they want to keep people away.

Losing her shine

But as long as she remains stuck in this stalemate, the Lady’s reputation is spiralling downwards. Her silence on the real issues is uncharacteristic of the strong leader persona she projected while she was under house arrest and fighting the military junta. However, to the outside world, all she has done is plead for understanding and national reconciliation, as well as call on the international community to stop criticising. But is she really willing to let the country’s ethnic Muslim group die to lengthen her political career?

The significant action she has sold herself as taking is the investigation commission she created, led by her good friend and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But this group is spineless; just a fact-finding body that can make recommendations but not enforce them. It will not find the truth, and it will not make Aung San Suu Kyi accountable for this mess.

At a guess, the commission will provide its reports while the Rohingya people remain stateless, homeless and isolated from the world. Kofi Annan himself has said that the commission is not built to focus on human rights, but to recommend solutions that will ease tensions between the Buddhists and Muslim minority. Myanmar’s powerful military can outright ignore the findings and refuse to consider any option they do not agree with. It does not help that even this body does not have a single Muslim member.

To further mock the reconciliation process, Aung San Suu Kyi has established a “national inquiry commission,” chaired by Myint Swe, a former lieutenant general among the Myanmar border army division and military intelligence. As such it seems fairly obvious that it will clear the military of any wrongdoing. Granted, the situation with the Rohingya is delicate and complex, but this gross inaction and lack of decisiveness from Suu Kyi are worrisome for Myanmar. They are on the right path to economic progress, but this could be a huge issue for the country’s future as more and more voices are raised against the horror of Rakhine.

For example, one Malaysian group, Malay and Islamic World (DMDI), has called Aung San Suu Kyi an international terrorist and plans to push for an economic boycott of Myanmar. This could be devastating for the developing country as it continues its transition – it needs foreign direct investment (FDI) to continue its impressive projected GDP of 7.7% in 2017. But the dreams of overtaking Singapore economically within 20 years will remain a dream if the country again falls under sanction.

A sad silver lining

If nothing else the one positive to come from this situation is that it seems to have pulled ASEAN nations closer together on an issue that demands their attention. Malaysia and Indonesia, being Muslim-majority countries, have led the outrage against Aung San Suu Kyi’s consistent ignorance of the plight of the Rohingya, with Prime Minister Najib already stepping past the non-interference principle to speak up. In return, Myanmar has responded angrily, but if these two big player nations can rally the rest of the ASEAN nations, then the bloc as a whole can send a strong message to Myanmar to end the ethnic cleansing immediately.

The situation may also force closer cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, according to documents accessed by Reuters, talks were planned and cancelled earlier this year between Myanmar’s senior officers and their Bangladeshi counterparts. These would have discussed collaborative security dialogue and cooperation, but their failure to begin shows again a lack of resolve and serious interest on the part of Myanmar to end the violence at their borders.

Looking to what happens next, the meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon saw Malaysia call for the 10-nation bloc to coordinate humanitarian aid and investigate the alleged violence. However, Myanmar used the session to deny the growing swathe of allegations and said most of these reports were all fabrications. It seems, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government remains stubbornly blind and insensitive to the plight of the so-called Rohingya Muslims. It is doubtful that they will provide an independent and credible assessment of the situation in Rakhine. And so we are back to where we started. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership will fail under pressure. Again.