Why No­belist Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t stop eth­nic cleans­ing in Burma.

Scholar says Suu Kyi may not be­lieve that the Mus­lim group be­longs in Burma

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUT­LOOK - Joshua Kurlantz­ick Twit­ter: @JoshKurlantz­ick Joshua Kurlantz­ick is a se­nior fel­low for South­east Asia at the Coun­cil on For­eign Relations.

Burma is es­sen­tially run by one of the world’s most lauded hu­man­i­tar­i­ans — a No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate and a democracy icon. Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the party in charge of the gov­ern­ment, suf­fered more than two decades of re­pres­sion, in­clud­ing a long house ar­rest, rather than leave the coun­try or aban­don her quest for elec­tions.

Yet since her party took power last year, Suu Kyi — the coun­try’s de facto leader, though not its of­fi­cial pres­i­dent — has stood by and watched the slaugh­ter and flight of hun­dreds of thou­sands of eth­nic Ro­hingya, a Mus­lim mi­nor­ity more than 1 mil­lion strong. In 2016, Burma’s mil­i­tary was en­gaged in a cam­paign of bru­tal sup­pres­sion in Rakhine state, in the west of the coun­try. Then, scat­tered at­tacks by Ro­hingya mil­i­tant groups on po­lice posts prompted an even harsher coun­ter­at­tack from the gen­er­als, re­port­edly joined by vig­i­lante groups and other state se­cu­rity forces. That cy­cle in­ten­si­fied fur­ther this sum­mer.

Hu­man Rights Watch, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and other mon­i­tors have cited ex­pul­sions of Ro­hingya from towns, cam­paigns to burn whole vil­lages and killings by the armed forces in Burma (which is also called Myanmar). In re­cent weeks alone, some 370,000 Ro­hingya have fled into Bangladesh, ac­cord­ing to United Na­tions es­ti­mates. The U.N. rights chief calls the cam­paign in Rakhine a “text­book ex­am­ple of eth­nic cleans­ing.” NPR noted that “re­ports of un­bri­dled mur­der and ar­son, rape and per­se­cu­tion have fol­lowed [Ro­hingya] out of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, sketch­ing a stark por­trait of gov­ern­ment vi­o­lence.”

Suu Kyi, whose Na­tional League for Democracy party was also re­pressed and bru­tal­ized by the armed forces dur­ing the long era of mil­i­tary rule, re­fuses to look squarely at the cri­sis. She has yet to visit the cen­ter of the vi­o­lence, and in her pub­lic com­ments, she has re­frained from crit­i­ciz­ing the armed forces. This month, she claimed that there was an “ice­berg of mis­in­for­ma­tion” cir­cu­lat­ing about the sit­u­a­tion in Rakhine. Her of­fice has mocked sup­posed “fake news” about the plight of the Ro­hingya. And her spokesman told lo­cal news out­let Fron­tier Myanmar that Ro­hingya “are hold­ing weapons — swords, dag­gers, cat­a­pults and home-made ri­fles” — and then seemed to give non-Ro­hingya carte blanche to shoot Ro­hingya if they per­ceived dan­ger from them.

Why did some­body who achieved so much good become com­plicit in so much ug­li­ness? There are sev­eral pos­si­ble, in­ter­lock­ing rea­sons.

First, Suu Kyi’s cur­rent si­lence is con­sis­tent with her ap­proach to the Ro­hingya for years: She has never demon­strated much sym­pa­thy. On the cam­paign trail be­fore the Novem­ber 2015 elec­tion, she strove to avoid dis­cussing vi­o­lence in Rakhine, even though an ear­lier wave had de­stroyed Ro­hingya com­mu­ni­ties and no mil­i­tant group had yet emerged there. When she did speak about the Ro­hingya, she called re­porters into a news con­fer­ence shortly be­fore the vote and told them not to “ex­ag­ger­ate” the dif­fi­cul­ties that the Ro­hingya faced.

It’s pos­si­ble that this dis­in­ter­est re­flects Suu Kyi’s per­sonal views, but it’s im­pos­si­ble to know for sure. One of her best-known bi­og­ra­phers, Peter Popham, has writ­ten that Suu Kyi is not, at her core, a bigot: She has had se­nior ad­vis­ers who are Mus­lims (al­though not Ro­hingya). And “one of the key fig­ures in per­suad­ing her to dive into the democracy move­ment” was a best-sell­ing dis­si­dent Mus­lim au­thor, Maung Thaw Ka, Popham notes.

But Suu Kyi does rep­re­sent her party. And there was lit­tle con­cern among the NLD rank and file in 2015, or even now in 2017, about vi­o­lence against the Ro­hingya. Many NLD mem­bers, like a sig­nif­i­cant share of the Bud­dhist ma­jor­ity, sim­ply think that the Ro­hingya are out­siders — called “Ben­galis” by many Burmese — who do not de­serve to live in the coun­try, even though some have been there for gen­er­a­tions. Last year, Suu Kyi re­port­edly asked the U.S. am­bas­sador in Burma not to re­fer to the group as Ro­hingya, a sign that she sees them this way, too.

That means there is no po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit to chal­leng­ing ma­jor­ity views to­ward the Ro­hingya. The NLD did not put up any Mus­lim can­di­dates dur­ing the 2015 na­tional elec­tions. Other for­mer pro-democracy lead­ers, who also were harshly re­pressed by the mil­i­tary dur­ing the decades of junta rule, have ex­pressed far stronger anti-Ro­hingya sen­ti­ments than Suu Kyi ever has.

These sen­ti­ments co­in­cide with a grow­ing Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist move­ment. As a re­cent In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed, this po­lit­i­cal and so­cial move­ment is build­ing ex­ten­sive ser­vices at the com­mu­nity level. Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist groups of­fer what the ICG calls “a sense of be­long­ing” for many young Bud­dhists. Such groups are the type of grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tions that no politi­cian likes to alien­ate. Suu Kyi does not de­pend on the move­ment’s sup­port — many hard-line Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists view her as soft on the Ro­hingya — but she also prob­a­bly does not want a ma­jor rift with it.

Since tak­ing con­trol of the gov­ern­ment — at least, the min­istries not con­trolled by the mil­i­tary — Suu Kyi has made clear that she has two ma­jor pri­or­i­ties: try­ing to im­prove Burma’s econ­omy and, most im­por­tant to the gov­ern­ment, mak­ing peace with the eth­nic armies that have waged long in­sur­gen­cies in north­ern and north­east­ern parts of the coun­try.

Suu Kyi has launched an am­bi­tious peace process with a num­ber of in­sur­gent groups, clearly see­ing it as es­sen­tial to her legacy and to mak­ing the coun­try whole. Her fa­ther, the in­de­pen­dence leader Aung San, tried to lay the ground­work for a fed­eral Burma and pre­vent this civil con­flict, but he was as­sas­si­nated not long af­ter he came to an ini­tial agree­ment with eth­nic mi­nor­ity groups. So all other is­sues are se­cond to the econ­omy and the peace process, as a gov­ern­ment spokesman told the New York Times, play­ing down the rel­a­tive im­por­tance of “democracy and hu­man rights, in­clud­ing press free­dom.”

Suu Kyi may also be­lieve that her abil­ity to stop the bru­tal mil­i­tary cam­paign in Rakhine state is lim­ited. Al­though she is the de facto head of gov­ern­ment, the top gen­eral, Min Aung Hlaing, main­tains a great de­gree of power. Burma’s con­sti­tu­tion gives the armed forces con­trol over the mil­i­tary bud­get and over min­istries re­lated to se­cu­rity is­sues; they are also al­lot­ted 25 per­cent of seats in par­lia­ment. Per­haps the army will have less power at some point in the fu­ture, af­ter a pe­riod of civil­ian rule and a change in the con­sti­tu­tion to re­duce its role in pol­i­tics. But un­til then, Suu Kyi may judge it im­prac­ti­cal to waste po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal chal­leng­ing the mil­i­tary on an is­sue many peo­ple in her party do not care about.

An­other prob­lem is that for­eign pres­sure on her to stop the Ro­hingya cri­sis seems to have made her even more in­tran­si­gent. Suu Kyi has al­ways been known as stub­born. (How else does one sur­vive decades un­der house ar­rest and other re­pres­sion?) She also is known to keep her own coun­sel. She does not have many voices in her in­ner cir­cle push­ing back or of­fer­ing cri­tiques of her ac­tions — voices that could ar­gue for a change in her Rakhine pol­icy. She has a small staff and re­port­edly gets lit­tle in­put from NLD mem­bers of par­lia­ment. Fer­gal Keane, a long­time chron­i­cler of Suu Kyi for the BBC, noted that “last De­cem­ber, when Vi­jay Nambiar, the UN Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Myanmar, urged Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state, he was re­buffed.” Why? Be­cause, as one Suu Kyi ad­viser told Keane, she sim­ply did not want to be seen as fol­low­ing out­side or­ders. This stub­born­ness could be mul­ti­plied by a feel­ing of be­trayal: The very coun­tries, rights or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­ter­na­tional lead­ers who for decades sup­ported Suu Kyi are now in­veigh­ing against her.

Suu Kyi has not been to­tally in­ac­tive on the Rakhine cri­sis. She cre­ated a com­mis­sion of ex­perts, chaired by for­mer U.N. sec­re­tary gen­eral Kofi An­nan, to in­ves­ti­gate the vi­o­lence. This was an im­por­tant step, and her gov­ern­ment has rhetor­i­cally com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment­ing the panel’s rec­om­men­da­tions.

Mean­while, Suu Kyi may see that, de­spite crit­i­cism of how she has han­dled the Rakhine cri­sis, most pow­er­ful for­eign gov­ern­ments are not go­ing to pun­ish Burma. The White House put out a state­ment this past week not­ing that it was “deeply trou­bled” by the vi­o­lence in Rakhine but has done lit­tle else. Else­where, Delhi has stood along­side Suu Kyi in con­demn­ing Ro­hingya ter­ror­ist groups and has threat­ened to de­port Ro­hingya seek­ing shel­ter in In­dia. Bei­jing blames the Ro­hingya mil­i­tants for the vi­o­lence. This month, Suu Kyi’s se­cu­rity ad­viser noted that “friendly coun­tries” such as China would block any res­o­lu­tion at the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil crit­i­ciz­ing Burma.

Given her moral stature, her his­tory and her power in Burma, Suu Kyi’s in­ac­tion has surely wors­ened af­fairs. She has shown the mil­i­tary that it can act with im­punity, and her pub­lic state­ments have done noth­ing to chal­lenge peo­ple within her party who don’t see the is­sue as im­por­tant. Her in­dif­fer­ence has hurt aid or­ga­ni­za­tions’ abil­ity to get peo­ple on the ground and to po­ten­tially raise money to help the Ro­hingya.

Suu Kyi can still make a dif­fer­ence, though. By speak­ing out more about the plight of the Ro­hingya, she could boost in­ter­na­tional aid ef­forts to keep Ro­hingya in camps in Bangladesh — and tem­po­rary places of shel­ter in­side Burma — from dy­ing. And in the end, she is the pop­u­larly elected leader in Burma; while Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ist groups and gen­er­als might dis­like a visit by her to Rakhine, they would be un­likely to stop her.

She knows these things. But she has watched the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis un­fold any­way.


As seen from Bangladesh, smoke rises from a town across the bor­der in Burma last week. That coun­try’s Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity has been sub­jected to vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion at the hands of the armed forces and vig­i­lante groups, in­clud­ing the burn­ing of...

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