Leader Suu Kyi a fallen hero

Cri­sis in Myan­mar: Bal­ance be­tween civil­ian gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary is del­i­cate, un­der­scor­ing frag­ile state of demo­cratic re­form process

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FORUM - GE­OF­FREY JOHN­STON Fol­low Ge­of­frey P. John­ston on Twit­ter @Ge­offyPJohn­ston.

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.

Eth­nic cleans­ing

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.

Mil­i­tary con­nec­tion

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.

UN Sum­mit

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.

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