If you’re in her shoes

The Borneo Post - - THOUGHTS & OPINIONS - By Sidi Mu­nan

I DON’T know if it’s re­ally fair, with­out reser­va­tion, for any­one to blame Aung San Suu Kyi for her fail­ure to stop the burn­ing of vil­lages and the killing of the Ro­hingyas in the Rakhine State.

It would be un­char­ac­ter­is­tic of her to con­done crim­i­nal acts by any­body – the very evil that she had been fight­ing against, for which work she was awarded the No­bel Peace Prize in 1991.

Ap­par­ently her au­di­ble si­lence to con­demn th­ese atroc­i­ties by the Myan­mar mil­i­tary is looked upon by some as a blackspot in her char­ac­ter as a politi­cian. Some crit­ics even asked for the re­moval of her award for this rea­son. Her state­ment made after her re­cent meet­ing with In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi about her gov­ern­ment’s pol­icy of car­ing for ev­ery cit­i­zen and non- cit­i­zen re­ceived scant at­ten­tion by West­ern me­dia.

The Ro­hingyas

The Ro­hingya refugee cri­sis steadily got worse in Oc­to­ber last year. It was a trickle then, but fol­low­ing the at­tacks on the po­lice and army in Rakhine State by the Ro­hingya in­sur­gents on Aug 25, it has be­come an ex­o­dus.

The car­nage was hor­ri­bly cruel. The Hu­man Rights Coun­cil of the United Na­tions has even clas­si­fied it as text­book eth­nic cleans­ing. But there have been such crack­downs in vary­ing scales of bru­tal­ity on their own peo­ple too by the mil­i­tary – ask the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan. Th­ese groups, among oth­ers, have suf­fered dis­crim­i­na­tion and op­pres­sion since in­de­pen­dence in 1948, es­pe­cially after the mil­i­tary seized power from a civil­ian gov­ern­ment of U Nu. While all th­ese were hap­pen­ing, Suu Kyi was away in Lon­don; that’s long be­fore she be­came an elected politi­cian.

Didn’t any­body re­mem­ber the killing of so many stu­dents in Ran­goon in 1988, of the many ar­rests of monks in Man­dalay in 1990, and of the purges of the in­tel­lec­tu­als and the elite of Burma who sup­ported the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD)?

When Suu Kyi came back to nurse her ail­ing mother in April 1988, she ad­dressed stu­dent spon­sored ral­lies for democ­racy, speak­ing out against hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. She thought that she would be able to do some­thing about stop­ping il­le­gal killings by just talk­ing; she failed and ended up in the lions’ den her­self. Dur­ing one of her trips in the De­payin dis­trict, north of Man­dalay, her en­tourage was am­bushed, al­legedly by mobs al­lied to the army. Many of her sup­port­ers lost their lives. Luck­ily, she es­caped death but not lucky enough to es­cape a house ar­rest – sev­eral more house ar­rests, af­ter­wards.

After the stu­dent- spon­sored ral­lies in Au­gust 1988, thou­sands of Suu Kyi’s party sup­port­ers were ei­ther killed or in jail or have sim­ply been miss­ing with­out a trace to this day. Many chose self- im­posed ex­ile over­seas, while oth­ers re­sorted to guer­rilla war­fare in the jun­gle in the bor­der ar­eas in the north.

The Ro­hingya refugee cri­sis

With ref­er­ence to the Ro­hingya cri­sis and the crit­i­cism of her fail­ure to speak out for the Ro­hingyas, have we ever con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of Suu Kyi as not hav­ing full con­trol of af­fairs in Myan­mar where the mil­i­tary is still the one that wields real power, de­spite the elec­tion of a civil­ian gov­ern­ment in 2015?

She may be charis­matic in her own right; she may be a win­ner of the No­bel Peace prize but there’s lit­tle that No­bel peace lau­re­ates can do with­out real po­lit­i­cal clout and mil­i­tary power – with due re­spect to Malala and Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu.

She may be an elected mem­ber of the 492-mem­ber Na­tional Assem­bly, but the mil­i­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tives con­trol 25 per cent of the vote there. This solid power block can make and un­make a gov­ern­ment in Myan­mar with­out the use of guns – a frag­ile NLD’s hold on power.

She may be the State Coun­sel­lor and the de facto leader, but the one who rules is be­hind the scenes like the Em­press Dowa­ger dur­ing Manchu China. How ef­fec­tive is that kind of power be­hind the screen?

She will not be able to push her way with­out the sup­port of the top mil­i­tary. Where are the mod­er­ate of­fi­cers who are sup­posed to help her con­nect with the top brass?

This is a bit­ter re­al­ity that she faces and which we, the out­siders, should take into ac­count when eval­u­at­ing her per­for­mance as a po­lit­i­cal leader un­der the present con­di­tions in Myan­mar.

She must be frus­trated at her in­abil­ity to act as she would like to; also a frus­tra­tion for the gen­eral Myan­mar pub­lic, es­pe­cially her mil­lions of sup­port­ers, and a great dis­ap­point­ment to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Moral per­sua­sion and trade sanc­tions may work in cer­tain coun­tries; in Myan­mar it is much more dif­fi­cult be­cause the mil­i­tary is a gov­ern­ment within the gov­ern­ment.

It is not easy to gov­ern a coun­try with many eth­nic groups – by some es­ti­mates, be­tween 30 and 40 lan­guage groups; th­ese have been en­gaged in spo­radic armed clashes with gov­ern­ment troops dom­i­nated by one eth­nic group based in ma­jor cities like Ran­goon, Man­dalay and now Naypyi­daw.

She may be the daugh­ter of a fa­mous Burmese wartime and in­de­pen­dence leader – Gen­eral Aung San – but the gen­eral’s rep­u­ta­tion is not enough with which to keep, let alone stop, the field com­man­ders from what they do as sol­diers at war. And in Myan­mar, there is al­ways a war some­where.

If you were in her shoes would you be able to dis­ci­pline the troops with­out the real power to com­mand and pun­ish dis­obe­di­ence? In her case, it is Per­sonal Safety First. We don’t want her to get into trou­ble again, do we?

Ele­phant in the room

An­other fac­tor that has lately com­pounded the Ro­hingya cri­sis is the emer­gence of the in­sur­gent groups who call them­selves the Arakan Ro­hingya Sal­va­tion Army (Arsa). The crack­down by the mil­i­tary on them as a reprisal for the at­tacks on the army and po­lice posts in Rakhine State on Aug 25 does not help mat­ters. Both sides were sav­age killers. The Ro­hingyas were killed; the non-Ro­hingyas and nonMus­lims got killed too. But then what war is not sav­age?

The Ro­hingya mil­i­tant group was born out of frus­tra­tion and des­per­a­tion to pro­tect their peo­ple from the army. Un­for­tu­nately, the move to kill the po­lice and the army has brought dis­pro­por­tion­ate de­struc­tion and trig­gered an ex­o­dus of refugees bound for poor Bangladesh.

A counter- pro­duc­tive strat­egy. Didn’t the lead­ers of the mil­i­tants fore­see that there would surely be a dis­pro­por­tion­ate re­tal­i­a­tion from a well- equipped army, re­sult­ing in more deaths, more houses burned, and more refugees? This move pro­vided a con­ve­nient ex­cuse for the army to come down hard on their tar­gets.

Points to pon­der

Th­ese are sev­eral points to pon­der be­fore one passes judg­ment on Suu Kkyi’s per­for­mance as a po­lit­i­cal leader and her ap­point­ment as the State Coun­sel­lor hardly two years ago.

A civil­ian gov­ern­ment was formed after the elec­tion 1990, but the mil­i­tary was still call­ing the shots, not Suu Kyi or her party LDP. Although hav­ing ob­tained a de­ci­sive man­date from the elec­torate, the mil­i­tary sim­ply ig­nored the re­sults.

After the 2015 elec­tions, one would have thought that Suu Kyi would be ap­pointed Pres­i­dent as a mat­ter of course. Just a minute – the army­drafted con­sti­tu­tion bars her from as­sum­ing such high of­fice sim­ply be­cause she was mar­ried to a for­eigner.

We need her there, not pull her down. Push her hard and she will get into trou­ble again. As age is catch­ing up, she may not have the stamina to carry on and this Suu Kyi- bash­ing is not wise. There is a limit to what she can do in the cir­cum­stances.

How do we know that she has not tried to per­suade the top mil­i­tary brass through the gen­er­als close to her to find a way out of the cri­sis? Do we know that she has done the best she can but the gen­er­als won’t lis­ten to her? Have we ever thought of geopol­i­tics in con­nec­tion with the prob­lems in Myan­mar? Of the strate­gic in­ter­ests of her neigh­bours? Of the lu­cra­tive trade in il­le­gal tim­ber, in pre­cious stone, in arms, and drugs across the borders?

Re­sort to United Na­tions

We de­plore the killings by the mil­i­tary and by Arsa.

I sup­port the move of re­fer­ring the refugee prob­lem to the United Na­tions. The UN knows who Myan­mar’s close al­lies are. Per­haps, through them, the arms of the gen­er­als may be gen­tly twisted – the arms that wield the real power – so that the shoot­ing and the ar­son of vil­lages will stop at once.

Asean has a stand­ing pol­icy of not in­ter­fer­ing in the af­fairs of a mem­ber coun­try, so Asean has no so­lu­tion there.

There may be more than meets the eye – a cou­ple of ele­phants in the room that no one wants to talk about. I have my the­ory.

Com­ments can reach the writer via colum­nists@ the­bor­neo­post. com.

Squeezed be­tween the Devil and the deep blue sea.

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