Suu Kyi essential to finding a solution in Myanmar
Rather than unproductive virtue signaling, the international community should establish a presence on the ground in Rakhine that would help Rohingya refugees return safely and build towards long-term stability.
Iwrote about the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine State last August, after the murderous attack on a police post by self-proclaimed Rohingya militants and the massive and often brutal military response. Since then, the outflow of terrified people into Bangladesh, bearing stories of multiple atrocities committed against them and their families has continued. Bangladesh now probably hosts more than 700,000 refugees from Rakhine. There has been a pulse of stories accusing Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s foreign minister and first state counsellor, of at best ignoring these reports and the clear evidence of serious abuses of human rights by the Myanmar security forces, and at worst of complicity. I tried to explain in my last piece why I believe these accusations are unfair and reflect either ignorance or a misreading of Myanmar’s history and a misunderstanding of the range of powers available to Suu Kyi in the face of an entrenched military establishment. After all, it was Suu Kyi who had specifically commissioned a report into the situation in Rakhine by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the publication of which and her welcome of it had been deliberately undermined by the carefully timed attack on the police post. And it was Suu Kyi who subsequently established an international advisory board to help her take the constructive conclusions of this report forward in the face of hostility within the military, a largely unsympathetic public opinion, and a sustained wave of personal criticism from outside the country.
Last week, former senior Clinton administration official Bill Richardson, who served as governor of New Mexico, energy secretary and US ambassador to the UN, added fuel to the fire after the first visit of the advisory board to Rakhine by announcing his disappointment at progress and his immediate resignation. This outburst captured press and public attention once again and led to a fresh surge of highly personal attacks upon Suu Kyi — in spite of the fact that Richardson was also quoted by Reuters as saying he thought she remained the only hope for Myanmar.
As I strolled down the Whitechapel Road in London last week, among the vibrant market stalls outside the East London Mosque, and saw the collection buckets for the Rohingya refugees and the responses of ordinary people, I recognized the depth of emotion this issue clearly stirs. But I also thought — and think — that we all need to take a deep breath and consider what a genuinely collective rather than communal approach to this crisis might actually demand and what role the international community should play in delivering a resolution.
As we do so, we might reflect that Richardson was himself criticized by another member of the board, former South African Defense Minister Roelf Meyer, who said at a press conference: “Mr. Richardson was in a little bit of a hurry to make this statement. I think it is unfair and it is not a legitimate statement by him. Our impression so far is that they (the government) are listening and our impression so far is they are serious. We would like to press for that engagement to be successful.”
Surakiart Sathirathai, the former deputy prime minister of Thailand who heads the advisory board, gave a long interview to journalists about his team’s first visit to Rakhine and remarked: “We commend the Myanmar government in committing to implement the 88 points recommended by Kofi Anan. The state counsellor has emphasized the rule of law and providing justice to the people in the local communities. I think that is the right way to go.” In response to Richardson’s specific criticism of the board, he added that they needed to come with open minds and speak with one voice to the implementation committee.
Even Justin Forsyth, a deputy executive director at UNICEF, told the BBC last Thursday that, while he had heard horrific and credible accounts from refugees, we still needed to remember that it was not Suu Kyi but the military that ran the show in Rakhine. This theme has been picked up in detail in a series of excellent reports on the situation by the International Crisis Group.
These are all serious voices. So critics should not simply dismiss Suu Kyi’s efforts to bring some order, stability and humanity to this terrible situation. I believe she is doing all in her power to remedy it, but she faces immense difficulties in a system that deliberately limits her capacity to control events while she seeks to respond to international pressure on her personally to deliver.
Ideally what we need to see now — after the recent and welcome announcement of an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to implement an orderly program for the secure return, resettlement and reintegration of refugees — is the establishment of a capable international presence on the ground in Rakhine. This would help the government of Myanmar, with their blessing and working through the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, to provide safe places and rehabilitation for returnees; to reconstruct those areas most affected by the violence; to provide sustained improvement in basic services; and to consider reform of the legal framework to address issues of hate speech and incitement.
In the long run, this needs to be a program of support that helps the government more generally address the huge challenges involved in moving the country away from military dictatorship towards a truly accountable, representative and responsive political system that guarantees the rights of all its citizens. In all this, Suu Kyi is an essential figure. Without her, I find it hard to see how anything of permanent value will be achieved. Constructive criticism is fine, as long as it is intended to help and is accompanied by genuine offers of practical support that don’t just address immediate needs — important as they are — but recognize the broader context and set out to stabilize that too. As Meyer, Forsyth and Sathirathai have all suggested, anything else risks looking like unproductive virtue signaling.
Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.