If you’re in her shoes
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 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.