STILL TIME FOR RE­DEMP­TION?

She is, in many ways, still held cap­tive by her coun­try’s mil­i­tary, but there are op­tions open for fallen idol Aung San Suu Kyi to res­cue Myan­mar from pariah sta­tus once more, say AN­THONY WARE and COSTAS LAOUTIDES

The New European - - Expertise - An­thony Ware and Costas Laoutides are se­nior lec­tur­ers at Deakin Uni­ver­sity, in Vic­to­ria, Aus­tralia; this ar­ti­cle also ap­pears at the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

Few falls from grace have been as pre­cip­i­tous as that of Aung San Suu Kyi. Myan­mar’s civil­ian leader and its de facto pres­i­dent is un­der fire from all sides. Do­mes­ti­cally, she is fac­ing grow­ing crit­i­cism for stalled eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal re­forms, glacial progress on pol­icy and ser­vice im­prove­ments, and the sup­pres­sion of free­dom of ex­pres­sion and press free­dom. But it is her in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion that is most in tat­ters.

The No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate, im­pris­oned for 15 years over a 21-year pe­riod in her strug­gle for hu­man rights and democ­racy, was once lauded as a global icon. She is now widely seen as an en­abler of eth­nic cleans­ing and geno­cide. In re­cent days, Canada has stripped Suu Kyi of her hon­orary ci­ti­zen­ship and the Malaysian prime min­is­ter has stated pub­licly that she has lost his sup­port. Rarely has the rep­u­ta­tion of a leader fallen so far, so fast.

Suu Kyi has been the sub­ject of much crit­i­cism since tak­ing power in 2016, but the most re­cent and vo­cif­er­ous con­dem­na­tion has cen­tred on two events: the jail­ing of two Reuters jour­nal­ists who ex­posed a mas­sacre of Ro­hingya civil­ians by the mil­i­tary, and her govern­ment’s fail­ure to re­spond to in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tions into al­le­ga­tions of eth­nic cleans­ing and geno­cide.

In Septem­ber, the two Reuters jour­nal­ists were con­victed of pos­sess­ing of­fi­cial se­crets, de­spite tes­ti­mony by a policeman that they had been en­trapped. The jour­nal­ists had re­ported on a 2017 mas­sacre of Ro­hingya Mus­lims by se­cu­rity forces, which re­sulted in the even­tual con­vic­tion of seven sol­diers for mur­der.

It is no­table that it was Suu Kyi’s civil­ian govern­ment that pros­e­cuted the jour­nal­ists, not the mil­i­tary. Suu Kyi could have or­dered the charges dropped, as she did for stu­dent protesters dur­ing her early days in of­fice. In­stead, be­fore the trial was over, she com­mented that the re­porters were guilty of vi­o­lat­ing the Of­fi­cial

Se­crets Act, and once even al­legedly re­ferred to them as “traitors”.

The sec­ond great dis­ap­point­ment has been the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil’s re­port into the vi­o­lence that drove al­most 700,000 Ro­hingya Mus­lims to flee to Bangladesh last year. The re­port, re­leased in full in Septem­ber, found con­clu­sive ev­i­dence that se­cu­rity forces had in­deed en­gaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Ro­hingya, with geno­ci­dal in­tent. It went on to ac­cuse Suu Kyi and her govern­ment of con­tribut­ing to the atroc­i­ties through

“acts and omis­sions”.

The HRC rec­om­mended the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil re­fer the Myan­mar com­man­derin-chief and five generals to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court (ICC). The UN Hu­man Rights Coun­cil also set up a body to pre­pare ev­i­dence for tri­als.

Rather than pledge to co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, how­ever, Suu Kyi has con­sis­tently de­fended the mil­i­tary ac­tion against the Ro­hingya and re­peat­edly pointed to a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of the sit­u­a­tion.

Her only con­ces­sion to the in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of her govern­ment has been this muted state­ment: “There are, of course, ways in which, with hind­sight, we might think that the sit­u­a­tion could have been han­dled bet­ter.”

The mil­i­tary re­mains a very pow­er­ful force in Myan­mar. It has the power to ap­point its own per­son­nel to a quar­ter of the seats in par­lia­ment and over­sees the three pow­er­ful min­istries of Home

Af­fairs, De­fence and Bor­der Af­fairs.

The govern­ment has no power to hold the mil­i­tary ac­count­able for ac­tions against the Ro­hingya. Suu Kyi is there­fore in a very weak po­si­tion. She has nonethe­less gone out of her way to not just de­fend the mil­i­tary, but praise it. In Sin­ga­pore last month, she made head­lines when she de­clared that the three generals in her cab­i­net were “rather sweet”.

Suu Kyi has stressed that her govern­ment’s aim of re­mov­ing the mil­i­tary from pol­i­tics would even­tu­ally be achieved through ne­go­ti­a­tion, keep­ing in mind the need for na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. How­ever, her dream of con­sti­tu­tional re­form de­pends en­tirely on mil­i­tary ap­proval. This would ap­pear to in­hibit any abil­ity for her to cen­sure the mil­i­tary. She also has no means to com­pel the mil­i­tary to co­op­er­ate with in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Suu Kyi still has con­sid­er­able moral author­ity within Myan­mar, and the mil­i­tary is still widely un­pop­u­lar. Thus, de­spite the se­vere lim­i­ta­tions on her power, she does have other op­tions to lead ef­fec­tively on is­sues like hu­man rights, the Ro­hingya and press free­dom.

Suu Kyi and her govern­ment should start by recom­mit­ting them­selves to a be­lief in uni­ver­sal hu­man rights. She should also ex­press em­pa­thy with the vic­tims of the atroc­i­ties in Rakhine state, which may be­gin to shift pop­u­lar opin­ion against the ac­tions of the mil­i­tary and en­gen­der more pub­lic sym­pa­thy for the Ro­hingya.

Fur­ther, Suu Kyi needs to pledge full co­op­er­a­tion with the ICC in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions of eth­nic cleans­ing and geno­cide, and call for a gen­uinely in­de­pen­dent do­mes­tic in­quiry to pave the way to­wards true rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Suu Kyi may not be able to com­pel mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion with the ICC in­ves­ti­ga­tion, or even un­fet­tered ac­cess to the coun­try for in­ves­ti­ga­tors. But draw­ing on her moral author­ity could go a long way to help. She could pave the way for visas and travel ap­proval, for in­stance, both of which were de­nied to in­ves­ti­ga­tors by her govern­ment.

Fi­nally, the govern­ment must de­velop ro­bust, ur­gent repa­tri­a­tion plans for the Ro­hingya – in co­op­er­a­tion with Bangladesh and the UN – that guar­an­tee their se­cu­rity, hu­man rights, a path­way to full ci­ti­zen­ship and an end to seg­re­ga­tion in Rakhine. They need a plan for in­clu­sive de­vel­op­ment poli­cies in the state, and to re­store both me­dia free­doms and hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess to the re­gion. The op­por­tu­nity for such moral lead­er­ship is quickly evap­o­rat­ing.

Suu Kyi and her govern­ment were elected by a land­slide in 2015, win­ning about 80% of seats up for elec­tion. Polling re­leased last week showed that only about half those sur­veyed be­lieve the rights of peo­ple have im­proved in the two and a half years that she has been in power and less than half the pop­u­la­tion feel there has been any po­lit­i­cal or eco­nomic im­prove­ment. There have also been in­creas­ing com­plaints about the per­for­mance of the govern­ment.

With her sup­port erod­ing both home and abroad, Suu Kyi ap­pears to have a lim­ited win­dow to ad­e­quately ad­dress the Ro­hingya cri­sis and re­gain her moral author­ity. Oth­er­wise, Myan­mar risks slip­ping back into iso­la­tion and again be­com­ing a pariah state.

Pho­tos: Soe Than WIN/AFP/GETTY Im­ages & PA

FALL FROM GRACE: Myan­mar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Be­low, im­pris­oned Reuters jour­nal­ists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone

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