The tragedy of Aung San Suu Kyi

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT - By Syed Mu­nir Khasru, Ex­clu­sive to the Sun­day Times in Sri Lanka

DHAKA – Myan­mar is in cri­sis. The Ro­hingya – a Mus­lim eth­nic mi­nor­ity group in a pre­dom­i­nantly Bud­dhist coun­try – are un­der at­tack by the mil­i­tary, with many flee­ing for their lives. This es­ca­lat­ing con­flict is threat­en­ing to un­der­mine Myan­mar’s on­go­ing demo­cratic tran­si­tion – and to tar­nish ir­re­vo­ca­bly the rep­u­ta­tion of the coun­try’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

For decades, Myan­mar’s govern­ment has re­fused to rec­og­nize the Ro­hingya – who com­prise around 2% of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of over 50 mil­lion – as a le­git­i­mate eth­nic mi­nor­ity, deny­ing them cit­i­zen­ship and even the most ba­sic rights as in­hab­i­tants. But it was just last month that sys­tem­atic dis­crim­i­na­tion es­ca­lated into eth­nic cleans­ing, with se­cu­rity forces re­spond­ing to at­tacks on po­lice posts and an army camp by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants by launch­ing an as­sault on all Ro­hingya peo­ple.

So far, Myan­mar has con­firmed 400 deaths, though United Na­tions of­fi­cials put the toll closer to 1,000. More­over, up­wards of 300,000 Ro­hingya have fled to neigh­bour­ing Bangladesh. Sev­eral thou­sand more Ro­hingya are wait­ing at the bor­der, await­ing per­mis­sion to en­ter the coun­try.

For a Bangladesh al­ready reel­ing from sea­sonal flood­ing, man­ag­ing the in­flow of refugees has proved a mo­men­tous chal­lenge. Makeshift camps are over­crowded, lack­ing in ba­sic re­sources, and vul­ner­a­ble to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters; al­ready, a cy­clone has de­stroyed some camps. Other sur­round­ing coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia, Thai­land, and Malaysia, are also feel­ing the ef­fects of the Ro­hingya’s plight.

Far from mov­ing to stop this hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, Suu Kyi’s govern­ment has ex­ac­er­bated it. While Suu Kyi does not con­trol the mil­i­tary, which is lead­ing the mur­der­ous crack­down, her govern­ment has blocked UN agen­cies from de­liv­er­ing vi­tal emer­gency sup­plies. The UN Pop­u­la­tion Fund (UNFPA), Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Chil­dren’s Fund (UNICEF) have all been forced to halt work in the af­fected areas.

This rep­re­sents a tragic de­par­ture for Suu Kyi, who pre­vi­ously won in­ter­na­tional ac­claim – and a No­bel Peace Prize – for her role in the fight for democ­racy in Myan­mar. The rise to power of her Na­tional League for Democ­racy in 2015 marked the end of 50 years of mil­i­tary rule in the coun­try for­merly known as Burma, and seemed to her­ald a new era, in which the hu­man rights of all in­hab­i­tants would be re­spected and pro­tected.

Amid the vi­o­lence against the Ro­hingya, faith in Myan­mar’s tran­si­tion from mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­racy is rapidly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. The mil­i­tary, which holds 25% of the seats in par­lia­ment, has al­ready blocked Suu Kyi from be­com­ing pres­i­dent, and, along with Myan­mar’s na­tion­al­ists, it con­tin­ues to con­strain her au­thor­ity. Now, the mil­i­tary is ac­tively per­se­cut­ing and even mur­der­ing mem­bers of one of the coun­try’s largest eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nor­ity groups, in what the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hus­sein, has rightly called “a text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing” – all for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ism has lately been gain­ing trac­tion among many Burmese, fu­elling ha­tred and vi­o­lence to­ward the Mus­lim Ro­hingya. By at­tack­ing the Ro­hingya, the mil­i­tary se­cures the sup­port of Bud­dhist monks, who re­main in­flu­en­tial in Myan­mar and could thus chal­lenge the mil­i­tary’s au­thor­ity.

As for Suu Kyi, she is now be­tween a rock and a hard place. If she sides with the Ro­hingya, she will face a pow­er­ful back­lash from the mil­i­tary and a large share of vot­ers. But, by re­main­ing silent, she is se­verely dam­ag­ing the moral au­thor­ity that al­lowed her to wear down Myan­mar’s gener­als and place the coun­try on the path to democ­racy.

Suu Kyi did ap­point a com­mis­sion, led by for­mer UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Kofi An­nan, to fig­ure out how to ad­dress the di­vi­sions be­tween the Ro­hingya and Bud­dhists in Rakhine State, where most Ro­hingya live. But her goal ap­peared to be sim­ply to buy time, though she prob­a­bly also hoped that An­nan would find a way to re­solve her dilemma.

Of course, that was im­pos­si­ble. In­stead, the com­mis­sion called for the im­me­di­ate es­tab­lish­ment by Suu Kyi’s govern­ment of a clear, trans­par­ent, and ef­fi­cient strat­egy and time­line for the cit­i­zen­ship ver­i­fi­ca­tion process. The com­mis­sion also em­pha­sized the need to “al­low full and unim­peded hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess to all areas af­fected by re­cent vi­o­lence.”

Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary made clear its stance on these pro­pos­als right af­ter the re­port was re­leased: it opened fire on Ro­hingya civil­ians in north­ern Rakhine, leav­ing at least 100 peo­ple dead. The mas­sacre was os­ten­si­bly a re­sponse to an at­tack by Ro­hingya mil­i­tants that killed 12 mem­bers of the se­cu­rity forces, though, as al-Hus­sein put it, the mil­i­tary’s ac­tions were “clearly dis­pro­por­tion­ate.”

What Myan­mar needs to­day is a gen­uine peace process that recog­nises the eth­nic and re­li­gious com­po­nents of the Ro­hingya cri­sis. Suu Kyi, who was praised by the No­bel Com­mit­tee in 1991 as “an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of the power of the pow­er­less,” should be the per­son to lead such a process. Yes, her power is se­verely lim­ited, as she has no au­thor­ity what­so­ever over the mil­i­tary. Yet her moral au­thor­ity, which once proved pow­er­ful enough to bend the mil­i­tary to her will, is not en­tirely de­pleted.

To wield that au­thor­ity ef­fec­tively, Suu Kyi must be will­ing to take a po­lit­i­cal risk. To be sure, as del­i­cate as the po­lit­i­cal or­der is in Myan­mar, there is no grid­lock that ob­vi­ates an agenda for progress in achiev­ing peace. But a peace process will re­quire Suu Kyi to stand up to Myan­mar’s gener­als, as she has done in the past, re­mind­ing them of the enor­mous ben­e­fits they have reaped from the po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion and con­vinc­ing them that it is not in their in­ter­est to jeop­ar­dise the democrati­sa­tion process.

Suu Kyi said in her No­bel Peace Prize lec­ture in 2012, “to be for­got­ten, is to die a lit­tle.” She must not al­low the Ro­hingya to be driven out and for­got­ten. Her task is to give power to the pow­er­less and bring peace to Myan­mar.

(The writer is Chair­man of the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy, Ad­vo­cacy, and Gov­er­nance (IPAG), an in­ter­na­tional think tank, led the team that pre­pared the “Pol­icy Brief on Global Mi­gra­tion Gov­er­nance” for the 2017 G20 Sum­mit in Ger­many.)

Copyright: Project Syn­di­cate, 2017. www.project-syn­di­cate.org

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