Leader Suu Kyi a fallen hero
Crisis in Myanmar: Balance between civilian government and military is delicate, underscoring fragile state of democratic reform process
In a detailed and often engaging 2014 memoir of her time as U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton describes Aung San Suu Kyi, the near mythic figure who went from dissident to the leader of Myanmar (also known as Burma), as “thin, even frail but with unmistakable inner strength.”
Suu Kyi, the daughter of a general who played a pivotal role in securing Burma’s independence after the Second World War, impressed Clinton during her time as President Barack Obama’s top diplomat.
“She exhibited qualities I had glimpsed before in other former political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel,” Clinton writes in her book Hard
Choices, which devotes an entire chapter to Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s gradual (and faltering) transition to democracy after decades of military rule.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won nearly 80 per cent of the seats in Myanmar’s November 2015 parliamentary election. Although the country’s 2008 constitution disqualifies Suu Kyi from becoming president due to the foreign citizenship of her children, she is nonetheless the de facto civilian leader of the country.
At the same time, the military remains politically powerful and maintains control over security matters. The balance between the civilian government and the military is delicate, underscoring the fragile state of Myanmar’s democratic reform process.
In the wake of her historic victory, the Whig- Standard declared that Suu Kyi must “address the persecution and disenfranchisement of the Rohingya minority,” noting that since her release from house arrest, the democratic reformer had been “shamefully indifferent to the plight of the Rohingya.”
The Rohingya are a stateless and persecuted ethnic group that selfidentifies as Muslim in Buddhistmajority Myanmar.
Written before the historic elections that brought Suu Kyi to power, Clinton’s book offers a guarded but ultimately optimistic view of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, expressing hope that human rights and prosperity would come to the country.
However, the human rights situation in Myanmar is much worse today than it was in 2014.
Although Suu Kyi probably cannot force the army to halt the campaign against the Rohingya, she has failed to even condemn the atrocities being committed by security forces and Buddhist vigilantes. And her silence over the years on the persecution of the Rohingya may have even emboldened the army and local Buddhist militias.
Tragically, the current ethnic cleansing campaign is but the latest example of attacks on the Rohingya.
In an address to the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council earlier this week, UN High Commission for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein declared that “another brutal security operation is underway in Rakhine State — this time, apparently on a far greater scale.” Citing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee, Hussein noted that “in less than three weeks, over 270,000 people have fled to Bangladesh, three times more than the 87,000 who fled the previous operation.”
Meanwhile, “many more people reportedlyremaintrappedbetween Myanmar and Bangladesh,” Hussein said. And he observed that “the operation, which is ostensibly in reaction to attacks by militants on [Aug. 25] against 30 police posts, is clearly disproportionate and without regard for basic principles of international law.”
According to the UN human rights chief, the world body has “received multiple reports and satellite imagery of security forces and local militia burning Rohingya villages, and consistent accounts of extrajudicial killings, including shooting fleeing civilians.”
Hussein told the council that he was “further appalled by reports that the Myanmar authorities have now begun to lay landmines along the border with Bangladesh, and to learn of official statements that refugees who have fled the violence will only be allowed back if they can provide ‘proof of nationality.’”
In addition, he reminded the council that “successive Myanmar governments have since 1962 progressively stripped the Rohingya population of their political and civil rights, including citizenship rights — as acknowledged by Aung San Suu Kyi’s own appointed Rakhine Advisory Commission — this measure resembles a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return.”
In 2016, Hussein “warned that the pattern of gross violations of the human rights of the Rohingya suggested a widespread or systematic attack against the community, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity.”
Hussein pointed out that Myanmar “has refused access to human rights investigators,” which means that “the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed.” However, he alleged that “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Hussein called upon the government to terminate “its current cruel military operation, with accountability for all violations that have occurred and to reverse the pattern of severe and widespread discrimination against the Rohingya population.” And he urged the regime to give his office “unfettered access to the country.”
On Sept. 12, the UNHCR updated the situation on the ground in Bangladesh. “We now estimate that 370,000 stateless Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since Aug. 25,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards stated at a news briefing in Geneva.
Clinton meets Suu Kyi
Ignoring Myanmar was not a good option for the United States during the Obama years. “It was a source of instability and hostility in the heart of Southeast Asia, and its growing narcotics trade and military ties with North Korea represented a threat to global security,” Clinton writes.
With the support of Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Clinton embarked on a bipartisan review of America’s Burma policy. The resultant new policy on Burma employed both sanctions and engagement tactics to encourage democratic reform in the military dictatorship.
For nearly two decades, Suu Kyi, one of the most inspiring democratic reformers in the entire world, had been repeatedly arrested by the ruling junta and confined to house arrest. “Suu Kyi was first imprisoned in July 1989, less than a year after entering politics during a failed uprising against the military the previous year,” Clinton writes. “She had been in and out of house arrest ever since.”
In 1990, the junta allowed an election, which Suu Kyi’s party won handily, prompting the ruling generals to quash the vote. In 1992, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And in 2000, U.S. President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Of course, Suu Kyi was not permitted to leave the country to receive the accolades.
In a surprise move, the junta released Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010. And the democratic reform process slowly progressed.
After years of “reading and thinking about this celebrated Burmese dissident,” Clinton finally got to meet Suu Kyi on Dec. 1, 2011. The meeting took place in Myanmar not long after Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest.
According to Clinton, Suu Kyi “had learned to be skeptical of good intentions and had developed a thoroughgoing pragmatism that belied her idealistic image.” The dissident leader told Clinton in their first meeting that the possibility for democratic reform in Burma was “real” but had to be “tested.”
“As we parted, I had to pinch myself,” an awestruck Clinton writes. She recalled that in 2007, “the world had watched in horror as Burmese soldiers fired into crowds of saffron-clad monks, who were peacefully protesting against the regime. Now the country was on the brink of a new era.”
For the former secretary of state, the rapidly evolving situation in Myanmar demonstrated “how fast the world can change and how important it is for the United States to be ready to meet and help shape that change when it occurs.”
However, Clinton, like so many international actors, failed to fully appreciate how far Suu Kyi was willing to go and what she was willing to sacrifice in terms of human rights to win and maintain political control.
In the fullness of time, Suu Kyi’s actions have demonstrated that she is no Mandela or Havel.
Clinton tells of Suu Kyi’s “connection to the very generals who had long imprisoned her.” And she notes that her friend “was the daughter of an officer, a child of the military, and she never lost her respect for the institution and its codes.”
According to Clinton, Suu Kyi told her that the reformers could “do business” with the military. “She was determined to change her country, and after decades of waiting, she was ready to compromise, cajole and make common cause with her old adversaries.”
Clearly, Suu Kyi’s willingness to “do business” with the military includes turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by the military and Rakhine Buddhist vigilantes.
The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), described as insurgents by some and terrorists by others, declared a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire recently. Suu Kyi is having none of it. On the social media website Twitter, Suu Kyi’s spokesperson declared: “We have no policy to negotiate with terrorists.”
Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the army’s ethnic cleansing campaign has drawn the ire of human rights defenders, including former Canadian foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock, Canada’s former permanent ambassador to the UN. Axworthy and Rock have called for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize.
During her time in Myanmar, Clinton met with the leaders of the country’s ethnic groups. And she recalled that “some wondered aloud whether Burma’s new rights and freedoms would extend to them,” foreshadowing the current crisis.
The Obama administration awarded Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal as “a well-deserved recognition for years of moral leadership,” Clinton writes. The day after the ceremony, Suu Kyi was honoured again at a gathering attended by Congressional leaders and a large audience.
In her address, Suu Kyi declared: “We continue with our task of building a nation that offers peace and prosperity and basic human rights protected by the rule of law to all who dwell within its realms.”
Viewed through the lens of the current ethnic cleansing campaign and Suu Kyi’s years of indifference to the plight of the Rohingya, her worlds now appear to have been nothing more than an artful attempt to manipulate the language of human rights in the pursuit of power.
On Sept. 19, world leaders will travel to New York City and gather in the UN General Assembly to discuss the world’s problems. But earlier this week, Suu Kyi’s cancelled her planned visit to the UN, citing the Rohingya crisis. No doubt she wanted to avoid getting an earful from world leaders about ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
However, the community of nations, including Canada, can send a clear signal to Suu Kyi that atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by Myanmar’s military and vigilantes will not be tolerated.
For example, Canada, which restated development assistance to Myanmar in 2013, could suspend all aid until such time that the human rights of the Rohingya are respected. According to the Government of Canada website, Canada has delivered $95 million in assistance to Myanmar in the last four years.
In addition, Canada should strip Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship, which was conferred upon her in 2012 by the former Harper government.
China, which wields a veto on the UN Security Council, supports Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya, making it doubtful that the council will invoke the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. Nevertheless, Canada should raise R2P in the context of Myanmar at next week’s UN summit.
In the final analysis, Suu Kyi is a fallen hero who has betrayed the cause of human rights and all those people around the world who believed in her.
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers an opening speech during the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on Aug. 11. Suu Kyi cancelled plans to attend the UN General Assembly, with her country drawing international criticism for violence that has driven at least 370,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims from the country in less than three weeks.