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For West, Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence complicates response to Rohingya crisis

Why We Wrote This

Aung San Suu Kyi is hardly the first icon who has wound up leaving many admirers disillusioned. But amid the Rohingya crisis, the consequences of the world’s bewilderment may be especially high.

Thein Zaw/AP
Reuters journalist Wa Lone talked to journalists as he was escorted by police from a court in Yangon, Myanmar, Sept. 3. He and colleague Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for illegal possession of official documents, a ruling that comes as international criticism mounts over the military's alleged human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims.

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Western policy toward Myanmar has long viewed Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime pro-democracy activist, as a symbol of defiance against the military. Three years ago, when the Nobel Peace Prize winner swept elections, many took it for a new dawn in Myanmar, after half a century of military dictatorship. Today, some of those hopes seem dashed. Last week, a United Nations mission investigating the army operation that has forced nearly 700,000 Muslim Rohingya to flee called for military leaders to be prosecuted for genocide, among other crimes. This week, two Reuters journalists who reported on army atrocities were sentenced to seven years in jail. And throughout it, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has stayed relatively silent, as the international community debates how to respond. Many emphasize that her power is sharply limited by the military’s continued grip. But others are still pinning their hopes on her leadership, says Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Western countries have been punching below their weight,” he argues, “because they wanted to believe the myth that Aung San Suu Kyi is a divinely inspired leader who just has a few political problems to sort out before she leads her country on the path to reform.”

Three years ago, the world cheered as Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi swept elections in Myanmar, promising a new dawn after half a century of military dictatorship.

The applause has quickly died, however, supplanted by dismay at signs that Western governments’ faith in the new regime was misplaced, and by uncertainty about how to treat the authorities in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Last week, a United Nations mission investigating the army operation that forced nearly 700,000 minority Muslim Rohingya to flee the country over the past year called for Myanmar’s military leaders to be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

This week, a judge in Yangon sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in jail, convicting them of breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act by their reporting of army atrocities, and brushing aside evidence they had been framed by police.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of the Myanmar government, spoke up neither for the Rohingya, nor for the journalists. Abandoning her previous opposition role as a human rights spokeswoman for the nation, she has “made a 180 degree turn from the Aung San Suu Kyi we thought we knew,” says Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

That has pulled the rug out from under Western policy towards Myanmar, which has long been founded on support for her as a symbol of defiance against the military. It has left Western countries struggling to find an effective policy to help the Rohingya, nearly 1 million of whom are now refugees in Bangladesh.

Yet many are still pinning their hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi, Mr. Adams says. “Western countries have been punching below their weight,” he argues, “because they wanted to believe the myth that Aung San Suu Kyi is a divinely inspired leader who just has a few political problems to sort out before she leads her country on the path to reform.” 

Military calling the shots

Observers familiar with Myanmar say Western hopes for a new democratic Burma were never realistic. Before the generals began to loosen their grip, they pushed through a constitution that “keeps the military in power perpetually,” says David Steinberg, the doyen of American Burma analysts, now a professor emeritus at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

“Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t control society or the administration at all,” he adds. “Just parliament.” And even her majority there is not large enough to change the constitution.

The military, meanwhile, are not under civilian control: They name the ministers of defense, interior, and border affairs; they set their own budget; and they dominate the most important institution in Myanmar, the National Defense and Security Council. “They have all the levers of power,” says Mark Farmaner, head of the Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group.

That limits Aung San Suu Kyi’s room for political maneuver. But even in fields where she does have authority, experts say, she has not used it in ways that might upset the army. Her government could have put a stop to the trial of the two journalists, for example, or it could have granted them amnesties.

Last year Aung San Suu Kyi “had enough moral capital to turn the tide” and combat the widespread bias against the Rohingya among the majority Bamar ethnic group, says Mr. Adams. “But she didn’t speak out.”

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Activists from several pro-democracy groups demonstrate against what they call Myanmar's ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and sentencing of two Reuters journalists to seven years in jail, outside the Myanmar consulate in Hong Kong, China on Sept. 6, 2018.

Looking for levers

For many Myanmar observers, the Reuters case is only the latest indication that Western governments cannot rely on Aung San Suu Kyi to strengthen pillars of democracy such as press freedom. Nor is she in a position to secure the return of Rohingya refugees, which she says she wants, because she has no authority over the military, and thus no power on the ground to protect returnees.

If that leaves Western governments few levers with which to reverse the deterioration of democracy and human rights in Myanmar, they seem reluctant to exert any real pressure on Yangon.

So far, in response to the army’s campaign of murder, rape, arson, and ethnic cleansing that has left tens of thousands of Rohingya missing and feared dead, the United States, Canada, and the European Union have imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on just a handful of generals involved in the operation.

“The military got the message that for the so-called greater good of reforms taking place, the international community considers the Rohingya expendable,” Mr. Farmaner says.

He and other rights activists are calling on governments to do much more, such as push for criminal investigations into allegations of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. The court ruled Thursday that it does have jurisdiction.

Activists are also demanding that governments suspend economic aid until the Rohingya are re-settled in their homes under international protection, slap travel bans on all military personnel, or reimpose economic sanctions on Yangon.

Such sanctions were credited with playing at least a partial role in forcing the military government to launch its economic and political reform process seven years ago. But some analysts doubt whether they would be useful today.

Toward the end of the military dictatorship, the generals feared that Myanmar was coming to resemble a Chinese province because of Beijing's heavy economic influence. Opening up to investment from other countries, they hoped, would neutralize their dependency on China.

But Western investment has not poured in as expected. Foreign investment has fallen for the past two years, and a US law firm that opened an office in Yangon in 2013 as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for foreign investors closed its business last February. Meanwhile, China is rekindling relations that cooled during the first years of Myanmar’s reform process – which would help blunt the effects of any Western sanctions.

“If sanctions were imposed I don’t think the generals would be at all affected,” argues Michael Buehler, an expert on Southeast Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “It would not lead to a change in regime or in political trajectory.”

An added difficulty with sanctions would be deciding when to lift them, suggests Professor Steinberg, arguing “there is no chance in the foreseeable future” that Yangon would treat the Rohingya in a way the West would find acceptable, such as by granting them Myanmar citizenship. (Most are stateless, as Yangon considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many families’ generations-old roots in Myanmar.)

A less mentionable calculus may be driving Western policymakers, suggests Dr. Buehler, if they are drawing on their experience 20 years ago with Indonesia as it emerged from military rule. “The price the West had to pay for democracy in Indonesia was not addressing the army’s human rights violations,” he recalls. “We should consider that strategy, however awful it sounds.”

Poppy McPherson/Reuters
Rohingya refugees protest the sentencing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo at Teng Khali camp outside Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, Sept. 5, 2018. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar over the past year.

But pressure to take more concrete action is likely to rise with the upcoming publication of the UN fact-finding mission’s full report, supporting allegations of genocide by the military against the Rohingya. The US State Department is also due to release its own report shortly.

“There will be strong words,” predicts Adams. “But will they be driven through on the ground to actually affect the generals’ lives? Until that happens, I don’t think we’ll see any change.”

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