GLOBALIST | 16 JANUARY, 2019
Globalist, our Foreign Policy Primer, looks at Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, was once lionised by western countries, human rights organisations and even within Myanmar as a force that would usher in real democracy and end the long reign of the military junta. Her iconic stature built over 15 years of house arrest and a determined opposition to army rule, is now tarnished. The reason cited by all those who once gave her awards and showered her with accolades is her very patent failure to use her well-documented determination, to end the continuing massacres and human rights violations of the Muslim Rohingyas of Myanmar. The onslaught against the Rohingyas has been termed ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Her silence and dissimulation has already cost her many honours. The Canadian Parliament has formally stripped her of her honorary Canadian citizenship. Amnesty International has taken away its highest honour- the Ambassador of Conscience Award- which it gave her in 2009. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has invalidated the prestigious Elie Wiesel Award that was presented to her in 2012. In Iran she and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing were put on trial during a 'popular court' in Tehran and sentenced to 25 and 15 years behind bars. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its own Press Oppressors awards had named her along with autocrats like Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and the winner in the category of Biggest Backslider in Press Freedom by the CPJ. The largest South Korean human rights groups had decided to take away the 2004 Gwangju prize that it had awared to Suu Kyi while the Councillors in the City of London had voted to revoke her Honorary Freedom of the City of London.
And she has done little to restore her image to what it was before she came to power.
The Rohingya crisis erupted in August 2017 when the Tatmadaw cracked down on the Rohingyas following an attack on police posts and an army station. The attack was attributed to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) reportedly led by Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi, a Rohingya man who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Prior to 2017 the Rohingya Muslims had faced widespread persecution by Myanmar’s military, which had herded many into camps and restricted their access to education and health care. Most had been stripped of their citizenship. The Buddhists of Rakhine state too had been involved in a confrontation with the army in pursuance of their demand for greater autonomy. Recently their Arakan Army launched raids on police outposts in Buthidaung township that left 13 policemen dead and nine others injured leading the army to vow to crush the Arakan Army. Myanmar blamed Bangladesh for providing bases to the ARSA and the AA a charge vehemently denied by Bangladesh.
Since August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims had fled to neighboring Bangladesh following executions, rapes and village burnings by the Tatmadaw in the north of Rakhine State. International human rights groups have extensively documented the way Myanmar’s military organized the bloodshed, in which at least 10,000 people were killed, according to a United Nations estimate. But Aung San Suu Kyi approach to the plight of the Rohingyas was best hinted at when she told the BBC in a 2013 interview that Buddhists lived in fear of “global Muslim power.” Her government has routinely denied atrocities and staunchly defended the military’s actions, portraying critical media reports as “fake news”. A 2015 Asia Barometer survey in Myanmar had revealed that many people believed that citizenship should be tied to religion and support for full rights for minorities was low.Suu Kyi is reluctant to discuss the Rohingya issue and it perhaps for this reason that she has stayed away from the United Nations General Assembly. Myanmar continues to deny access to and cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy came to power in 2015 in a landslide victory on a platform of democratic reform and ending the long running civil war in the country. She was given the post of state counsellor specially created for her since the 2008 military-drafted constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the job. It clearly targeted Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British, as was her late husband. She had then said that she was above the government but the past years have shown that the military still calls the shots. It had ceded some power to the civilian administration, but retained 25% of parliamentary seats and total control of security affairs. In the context of the Rohingya situation some observers have said that the military is side-lining her while others believe that her silence and inaction are manifestations of her endorsement of what the military is doing. In stark terms the former UN Commissioner for Human Rights had said that Aung San Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces Gen. Aung Min Hlaing could potentially face genocide charges in the future. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has asked the court to rule on whether it has jurisdiction over the deportations of Rohingyas to Bangladesh, a possible crime against humanity.
Myanmar and Bangladesh had signed an agreement for the repatriation of the refugee Rohingya back to Myanmar over a period of two years with strict formalities for proper identification of those being sent back. The programme was to begin in January 2018 but Suu Kyi has blamed Bangladesh for having stymied the process. Bangladesh is host to over 10 lakh Rohingya refugees according to the Refugee Reliefd and Repatriation Commissioner. Many have expressed fears of going back and some who did go back returned saying the situation in Rakhine remained unchanged. Bangladesh has been housing them in an uninhabited and muddy Bay of Bengal island which it has sought to transform into a home for 100,000 Rohingya refugees. The United Nations and the Bangladesh government had prepared a plan to provide an assistance of $950 million to the Rohingya refugees for food etc.
On coming to power Suu Kyi had promised to end the decades long civil war. The various ethnic groups were called on to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement. According to the government over ten ethnic armed organizations including the New Mon State Party had so far signed the NCA. Only four groups – the Karen National Union, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Restoration Council of Shan State and the New Mon State Party – actually have armed forces. The others are small local militias or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of little or no political significance. The KIA and its allies among the ethnic Wa, Palaung, Kokang, Shan, Arakanese and minorities in eastern Shan State, which together represent 80% of all non-state armed groups, were allowed entry to the talks only as observers, not participants.The Tatmadaw and Suu Kyi’s government continue to insist that they sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement before autonomy-devolving federalism can be discussed. The strongest armies, the KIA, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Arakan Army, as well as their allies among the ethnic Shans and Kokang, have refused to sign the NCA as it would be a surrender before the fashioning of a federal union. The military has shown no interest in changing the 2008 constitution, which gives the Tatmadaw immense powers, to pave the way for the federal union ethnic armed groups see as essential for lasting and meaningful peace. China, which is major player in Myanmar, has only told the ethnic groups under its influence that they should avoid fighting close to China’s shared border with Myanmar.
The Panglong process initatiated by the government has held three rounds of talks so far in 2016, 2017 and the latest in mid July 2018. Interestingly Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said in an opening speech that the military, not any ethnic armed group or even political party, was the true representative of all Myanmar’s people.
In 2016, shortly after the NLD came to power, five journalists who were sentenced to decade-long prison terms for reporting the alleged existence of a military-run chemical weapons factory in Myanmar, were pardoned leading to hopes that an era of media freedom was at hand. Suu Kyi’s actions have belied these hopes as well as her protestations at a rally in 2014 that …“.. in a democratic system, security should be in balance with freedom.” When “the rights of journalists (to report) are being controlled,” the very notion of democratic reform in Myanmar is “questionable.”…According to free speech organisation Athan, which means ‘Voice’ in Burmese, 44 journalists and 142 activists have faced trial since the Suu Kyi government took power. The group’s founder, poet and activist Maung Saung Kha, is one of them.
The NLD government's retaining laws that restrict free speech and the right to protest - its treatment of civil society, and its approach to ethnic minority grievances have caused alienation that could impact on the political landscape. On coming to power Suu Kyi had reportedly side-lined many of the activists and civil society groups that had aided her rise. Increasingly her erstwhile supporters are looking elsewhere complaining that she is going her own way and does not listen to civil society organisations. Myanmar youth activist and television host Thinzar Shun Lei Yi who has become one of Suu Kyi’s most vocal critics has said that.. “I lost my idol, I’m confused, frustrated and lost..” Kyaw Thu, the leader of the prominent civil society group Paung-Ku, said anyone who does not support the government agenda is considered an enemy. “She is only listening to those close to her,” said U Yan Myo Thein, an activist with the pro-democracy 88 Generation group and a former political prisoner, characterizing her inner circle as a “personality cult.”
Media reports suggest that domestically Suu Kyi still enjoys broad popular support and according to some senior American officials the US Administration continues to consider her the best bet for democracy in Myanmar. But there is disappointment that expectations of rapid development and economic growth remain unfulfilled. With a general election to take place in 2020, the country’s first civilian government in decades is confronted by growing divisions among activists who once coalesced around her National League for Democracy party.
The disappointment with Suu Kyi’s government is leading to the creation of new political formations. Ei Thinzar Maung, a young leader of the Democratic Party for a New Society, said she was dismayed that young people who demonstrated against the war in Kachin state in May had been arrested. Ko Ko Gyi, a veteran pro-democracy activist had founded the Four Eights People's Party. He said his primary strategy was to build alliances with ethnic parties in Myanmar on a platform of "equality" and "federalism." Most of these parties lost heavily to the NLD in 2015 but stand to gain from disillusionment of minority groups with Aung San Suu Kyi. Gyi’s Four Eights People's Party, named in reference to the "8888" general strike on August 8 during the 1988 uprising, had been told by the electoral commission to change its name, flag and logo to omit any reference to "8888," warning that its application would otherwise be canceled.
With elections due in 2020, and with Aung San Suu Kyi’s charisma fading and her supporters drifting, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing comments could suggest a possible political outcome – that of the military making sure that its power gets further entrenched—even if it means turning the page back to the pre-2015 situation. The ongoing violence in Myanmar; the recalcitrance of the strongest ethnic armies to lay down their weapons; the increasingly belligerent tone of the Buddhists; the preoccupation of the USA and major western countries with their own concerns and western Islamophobia could all work to the army’s advantage.