Why is Aung San Suu Kyi playing dead on the Rohingya issue?

By Kyaw Kyaw Aung

Pacific_Ocean_-_en“My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep … ” , the South African Nobel laureate  Desmond Tutu wrote to Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel prize winner in a recent open letter.

Tutu was one among many voices of criticism from the world community on Suu Kyi’s lack of action on the humanitarian crisis along Myanmar’s western border.    Many of her current critics had once stood by her as she defied the junta for more than a. Suu Kyi and the 50 million people of Myanmar know the high price that political conflict can impose. So did her father and Myanmar’s father Aung San.

Aung Sun Suu Kyi, photo via Wikipedia

Suu Kyi must play to her domestic electoral audience, and to the military.  This means she is giving up any attempt to help the Rohingya. In September, Suu Kyi decided to break her silence on the Rohingya exodus in a speech to a vetted audience of high-ranking military personnel, parliamentarians, government officials and diplomats.   In some ways, the speech is a symbol of Myanmar’s transition under the military’s guidance.  Suu Kyi is changing from an icon of world acclaim to Myanmar’s seemingly populist politician and de facto head of state. These changes find her under heavy world criticism.

The televised state-of-the-nation style speech contrasted sharply with her other notable speech delivered nearly 30 years ago amid pro-democracy uprisings of 1988. In 1988, Suu Kyi made the her first speech in public.  Her historic speech was delivered at the very same spot, where her father Aung San spoke to a similarly large crowd about his vision for an independent Myanmar. There and then, she spoke about democracy and human rights to an un-vetted crowd in public.  It earned her many international acclaims including the Noble Peace Prize.  Yet, both of them proved popular to her domestic electoral audience.  This phenomenon is ironic, but predictable given the global wave of populism. Suu Kyi’s stance on the Rohingyas is likely shocking to those who don’t understand   the deeper divisions of Myanmar or those of cosmopolitan persuasion.

Suu Kyi’s state-of-the-nation style address on the Rakhine State effectively regained or reinforced her popularity with the constituencies which gave her landslide victories at the polls.   Sadly, regular Myanmar watchers or realists in international politics, were not surprised. The international media from the West and the Muslim world are right in calling events a humanitarian crisis which will impose a huge economic cost on Bangladesh.   However, one should concede that Suu Kyi probably will never be able to fix all of Myanmar’s ills in her lifetime.   For instance, there is a new rebel group, ARSA from the Rakhine state in Myanmar with radical, militant Islamic beliefs.  Suu Kyi herself condemned ARSA and the radicalism. The truth is she may not have the power to fix the many problems caused by  the current crisis along the border with Bangladesh.

Suu Kyi’s vision of transition involve reconciliation only but none of truth and justice elements, unlike South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission.  This vision struggles to address long-standing individual grievances or intercommunal tensions of Myanmar.    These tensions in Myanmar are not new. They had challenged Aung San and other independence heroes in the 1930s and 1940s.  Then, WWII and Japanese fascism came only to widen the gulf between the mosaic of communities.   Aung San’s answer to the intercommunal tensions was a closed-room deal among élites to secure independence at all cost.  He was the leading figure who is responsible for the Pang long Conference at which he sold his unity-in-diversity dream to various ethnic factions of Myanmar.  Six decades later, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi convenes the Second Panglong Conference.  Like her father, she attempts to pacify and unite the restive ethnic groups by bringing rebels and the Myanmar military together in conference rooms behind closed doors.   She hopes to achieve a legacy-worthy National Ceasefire Agreement between warring parties.   Assassinated, Aung San did not see his vision of a Myanmar united in its diversity materialize.    Neither may Aung San Suu Kyi for there are so many obstacles.    But  the social media feed from Myanmar and Cardinal Charles Bo’s address suggest her response to criticism of her handling of Rohingya issue boosted her domestic popularity.

An interfaith prayer service turned into a pro-Suu Kyi rally, just days after Suu Kyi spoke about the crisis in Rakhine State. At the rally, Cardinal Bo, a catholic, said that they could take Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize off her, and she would still be just as popular here in Myanmar[i]. World-wide islamophobia and xenophobia only fan the flames of conflict in the western borderlands of an open Myanmar.   Before 2011. Isolated from the world and censored by the junta, islamophobia and xenophobia had been news from faraway lands for people in Myanmar.   Now, Suu Kyi and her party’s parliamentarians have been noted for their ability to play realpolitik in their meetings with ideologically incompatible Chinese officials, who have many business interests in Rakhine state[ii].  Logically, they must also be aware that ant-Islam voices and xenophobes are right at their doorsteps.  These groups in a newly-open Myanmar communicate with the public and foreign groups with similar ideologies – unhindered by censorship.  In short, the world probably did not heed the advice of a Myanmar watcher and academic, , a Myanmar academic and human rights activist. Dr Zarni labels the Rakhine crisis as a genocide[iii]. In a 2012 op-ed in Thailand’s The Nation and again in October 2017 on Al Jazeera English website on Myanmar’s transition to quasi-democracy, he remarked:

The current reform movement … lacks real potential to result in a new democratic polity which will build, and in turn feed off, a new and sustainable economic system.    Sadly, the West and the rest alike are choosing to overlook the apparent pitfalls of Myanmar’s reforms ignoring the cries of the wretched in a new Myanmar.[iv]

For Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya exodus is probably a price she finds justifiable in pursuit of her and her father’s vision of Myanmar. Her goal is future electoral victories for her political party.  Myanmar’s reaction to her handling of the crisis shows her domestic popularity after the televised speech came at the cost of world condemnation. For Myanmar people, including the Rohingyas, all these developments are unfortunately another high price of conflict and strife, one of many since the late 1940s.

~ ~ Kyaw Kyaw Aung is a post grad student in international relations. He describes himself as a ’Burmese Kiwi’.

Further reading:   Al Jazeera article on Suu Kyi speech here.

[i] Zomi Thupuak, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, accessed 4 November 2017, here.;

Zarni Mann, ‘Cardinal Charles Bo Said Nobel Peace Award Can Be Stripped but Not Our Confidence from Aung San Suu Kyi.”’, Catholic Archdiocese of Yangon (blog), 12 October 2017, here.

[ii] Giuseppe Forino, Jason von Meding, and Thomas Johnson, ‘Religion Is Not the Only Reason Rohingyas Are Being Forced out of Myanmar’, The Conversation, accessed 4 November 2017 Link  here.

Kin Ling Lo, ‘The Economic Stakes for China in Myanmar’s Restive Rakhine’, South China Morning Post, 22 September 2017, Link here.

[iii] DMAPLab MIGS, Crisis in Myanmar: Ethnic Cleansing or Genocide?: Interview with Dr. Maung Zarni, accessed 4 November 2017, link here.

[iv] Maung Zarni, ‘Reforms in Myanmar: Challenges and Prospects’, accessed 4 November 2017, here.

‘Reforms in Myanmar: Hype and Realities’, The Nation, accessed 24 October 2017, here.

Aljazeera article, here.

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