In the realm of international politics, few world leaders have incited such hope and then despair as Myanmar’s president Aung San Suu Kyi. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate rose to power on a wave of hope becoming Myanmar’s State Counsellor, the country’s top office, in 2015. Despite the hopes of the international community, Suu Kyi’s tenure has been marred by allegations of brutal treatment of Myanmar’s minority Muslim population, the Rohingya, who primarily inhabit the western Rakhine state. Amidst allegations of genocide brought by the state of Gabon, Suu Kyi has been summoned to the International Court of Justice to answer for her nation’s transgressions. The dichotomy inherent in Suu Kyi’s championing of civil rights and democracy and apparent blithe indifference to charges of genocide in the face of growing international opprobrium is representative of contradictions at the heart of Myanmar’s politics and, indeed, national and ethnic make-up.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is comprised of over 100 ethnic groups with the majority Bamar holding the lion’s share of power. The former British colony gained independence in 1948. Su Kyi’s father, Aung San, led the country’s first transitional government, however, he was assassinated in 1947. Held up as a father of the nation and a beacon of democracy, Aung San’s legacy lived on in his daughter’s enduring popularity amongst the Bamar. Structurally, the majority Buddhist Bamar population exist within an effective enclave in the centre of the country ringed by minority groups. Civil conflict of varying degrees between the Bamar majority and minority groups as well as a repressive military junta who seized power in 1962 have long been staples of the country’s political economy.
Amid increasing international isolation and a dismal economic outlook as well as domestic pressure, in 2010 a pragmatic decision was taken by the junta’s leadership to initiate some degree of democratic reform. However, the levers of power are very much still in the hands of the military and, what’s more, a restrictive constitution stymies any real hope of true reform and ensures a toothless polity. Moreover, as evinced by the country’s dismal human rights record, democratic reform for the Bamar does not imply the same for ethnic minorities within the country. This was the key factor missed by interlocutors who invested such expectation in Suu Kyi. Lastly, the historic distrust between Myanmar’s various ethnic groups, especially that between the Buddhist Bamar and the Muslim Rohingya, who have been held up as scapegoats by influential hard-line Buddhist preachers, all but ensures a policy direction of abuse by Myanmar’s security forces.
While tensions between the Bamar and Rohingya have alwasy remained high, the current conflagration began in 2016 as a vastly dispropotionate reaction by Myanmar’s security forces to attacks by Muslim militants on police posts in Rakhine state. It has developed into a protracted counter-insurgency operation involving land clearances and large scale round-ups of Rohingya people. Worse still, Buddhist extremists have been involved in brutal mob attacks, rape and violence against Rohngya groups. The crisis has also had knock-on effects creating attendant refugee crises in neighbouring states, especially Bangladesh with more than 730,000 Rohingya fleeing to the country as of 2018 according to Human Rights Watch. Furthermore, 128,000 Muslims, mainly Rohingya but including other minority groups have been interned in detention centres within Myanmar. A cautious estimate puts the death toll at roughly 10,000.
As such, while Suu Kyi attempts to defend Myanmar’s alleged atrocities against its Muslim population citing a terrorist insurgency as the primary reason for “clearance operations” against the Rohingya, it is clear that regardless of her true feelings, which remain opaque, there are structural issues and political forces above her. These forces effectively hamstring any effective response from within Myanmar’s de jure government. Suu Kyi, then, for those who advocated for her, becomes a cautionary tale of hope turning to deep disappointment and, ultimately, chagrin. Tragically, the human cost of this lesson is enormous and may not have yet been fully counted.
Photo by Stortinget
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