Aung San Suu Kyi and the Ethnic Cleansing of the Rohingya

The Burmese military has committed crimes against humanity in a recent ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya people:

Human Rights Watch has since 2012 found that the Burmese government has committed crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State. Since Aug. 25, when an armed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked about 30 police outposts in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces have carried out mass arson, killing, rape and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Given the scale and overall context of these latest atrocities, together with evidence of intent on the part of the Burmese military, Human Rights Watch believes that these more recent crimes also constitute crimes against humanity. The fact that the powerful military is behind these acts means that there is almost no chance that the government will bring key perpetrators to justice….

Let there be no doubt: The Burmese army is engaged in horrific atrocities in its ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. When soldiers shoot men in their custody, hack women and children to death, and burn their homes, the world needs to pay attention and act together to stop these crimes.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, is calling on the international community to not abandon Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her weak response to the crisis:

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, said Suu Kyi has been over criticized – “sometimes mercilessly” –  by many in the international community over the actions of the military against the Muslim Rohingya population, but what she really needs are outsiders to help provide constructive solutions to the crisis….

Bo told Crux in an email that Suu Kyi is in “an awkward position politically,” because the military still controls much of the government’s apparatus, and there is no political will within the country to support the plight of the Rohingya.

“If she speaks out on such a sensitive issue, the situation will explode, making it harder for her to solve the problem in Rakhine,” said Nyman Win, an NLD executive.

“Though Aung San Suu Kyi embraced diversity by bringing in Christians and Muslims into her inner circle, the agenda of nationalists and extremist monks has been threatening to shred the social fabric especially in Rakhine state,” Bo said.  “And it has happened now.”…

Bo said she needs to be given more time, and as she continues in office, the military will become increasingly sidelined.

Jamie Tarabay has also written on Aung San Suu Kyi’s limited influence on the military:

But analysts say Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has little if any control over the country’s military forces that are enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya….

The military junta, which ruled the country with an iron fist from 1962 until 2011 — arresting democracy advocates including Suu Kyi, imposing martial law and killing protestors — still controls the security forces, the police and key cabinet positions in the government. And there’s nothing Suu Kyi can do about it.

“Under the Constitution the commander-in-chief (of Myanmar’s Armed Forces) is his own boss, he doesn’t report to Aung San Suu Kyi. He can’t be fired,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

Senator John McCain has reached out to Aung San Suu Kyi, noting their years of friendship, but also pressing her to take a stand against the atrocities:

For decades, you have been a source of inspiration for those who seek peace, freedom, and justice. During our long friendship, I have admired your enduring courage and resilience in the face of the junta’s oppression. Now I encourage you to take an active role in putting a stop to this worsening humanitarian crisis as it spreads throughout the country. Use your remarkable voice to condemn the violence and atrocities the Rohingya suffer from your same oppressors. If you take steps to hold the military and other human rights violators accountable for their actions, you will have my full support and I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that your government has the assistance it requires to do so.

Burma stands at a critical juncture in its transition to a free and democratic state. Peace and stability will only be achieved when the rights of all peoples in Burma are respected. The Rohingya community has a long history in Burma and they have contributed significantly to your country’s unique social fabric. They deserve the same rights and protection as Burmese citizens. To move forward, I hope you will work towards a cooperative relationship with the Rohingya and facilitate a path of genuine reconciliation and reform.

Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, cautions that the military may be setting a trap to roll back democratization:

The military’s campaign is part of a strategy to harness the Buddhist majority’s deeply held sentiments against the Muslim Rohingya. But expelling the Rohingya also helps the military impugn Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the eyes of Myanmar’s people. In pressuring her to voice some support for the plight of the Rohingya, the military is attempting to show that she is not prepared to stand up for the Buddhists against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities deemed by popular sentiment to not be part of the Burmese nation.

The military also hopes to undermine Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the eyes of the international community, where she is seen as too weak in her defense of the Rohingya. The military has been succeeding in this, even though she has been largely powerless to act, given the legal, constitutional and realpolitik constraints she is facing.

The international community, therefore, faces a dual crisis of its own: First, an enormous humanitarian emergency in Rakhine State. Second, a military strategy manufactured to undermine Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s standing at home and abroad, and to pave the way for a return to a form of military rule.

When the United Nations sits down to decide what to do, both these factors must be considered.

The Rohingya must be protected as a matter of the highest priority. But so, too, must we stand up for the fledgling democracy in Myanmar. That requires not only demanding that the military end its brutal campaign against the Rohingya, but also not retreating from supporting Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. And the body formed to carry out the Annan commission recommendations needs more international support.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is no saint; no political leader is. Yet unless the international community focuses on the full dimensions of this crisis, not only will the humanitarian disaster for the Rohingya be prolonged, we will also see the end of democratic rule in Myanmar.

Given this complexity, those analyzing Burma will inevitably disagree about how Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to this military campaign should affect assessments of her character and place in history. Rudd is correct, however, that ultimately what matters is protecting the Rohingya from further crimes against humanity, securing their rights, and strengthening democracy in Burma.