How The International Community Misunderstands Myanmar

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Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi gives a national address in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on September 19.

 

Myanmar’s State Counsellor Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” currently stands accused by all her former admirers of aiding and supporting the “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.  In the world’s eyes, she has morphed from a saint into a monster because, as the new leader of the civilian government, she’s refused to support this persecuted group.  Indeed, by her silence alone, she sides with the generals who once imprisoned her.  While she was a promising new leader for Myanmar when first elected in 2015,  within weeks of her victory it became clear she would do nothing to intercede in the Buddhist majority country’s decades-old suppression of an ethnic group it regards as foreign intruders and largely confines to so-called displacement camps.  Ms. Suu Kyi has looked the other way during the latest army and vigilante murders, rapes, and burnings, and even asked why 400,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh,.  One of her few statements on the matter was truly outrageous given the blatant evidence: “We want to know why this exodus is happening.”  In the drama of Suu Kyi’s swap from being kept under house arrest by the generals to sharing power with them, outsiders could be excused for assuming she’d swoop in to nobly save the Rohingya. Myanmar’s State Counsellor Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights,” currently stands accused by all her former admirers of aiding and supporting the “ethnic cleansing” of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.  In the world’s eyes, she has morphed from a saint into a monster because, as the new leader of the civilian government, she’s refused to support this persecuted group.  Indeed, by her silence alone, she sides with the generals who once imprisoned her.  While she was a promising new leader for Myanmar when first elected in 2015,  within weeks of her victory it became clear she would do nothing to intercede in the Buddhist majority country’s decades-old suppression of an ethnic group it regards as foreign intruders and largely confines to so-called displacement camps.  Ms. Suu Kyi has looked the other way during the latest army and vigilante murders, rapes, and burnings, and even asked why 400,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh,.  One of her few statements on the matter was truly outrageous given the blatant evidence: “We want to know why this exodus is happening.”  In the drama of Suu Kyi’s swap from being kept under house arrest by the generals to sharing power with them, outsiders could be excused for assuming she’d swoop in to nobly save the Rohingya.

That’s where naive Westerners were mistaken.  We looked for a saint that did not exist.  We got duped not only  by her, but also by the generals who planned all along to use a powerless figurehead adored by the West to attract investment needed for their survival.  The trick, dependent on our naivety and our idealistic approach to foreign policy, went perfectly.  Maybe this is partly why we feel so burned by Ms. Suu Kyi’s silence., and why we feel foolish about handing the Nobel Prize to her, along with  others who’ve gone on to disappoint us with their un-peaceful ways.

I am not defending Ms. Suu Kyi.  She’s a pragmatist, a politician driven by survival and clinging to the slightest bit of power.  She’s a Buddhist nationalist and is interested far more in consolidating a majority powerbase — including the extremist monks — than in minority protections.  Expressing any empathy for oppressed Muslims in this country would destroy anyone’s career in a minute.  Ms. Suu Kyi may or may not be a bigot.  But she must act like one to survive not just military opinion but public opinion too.  In this fractured nation, even non-Muslim rebel groups are fine with the crackdown in Rakhine state.

Ultimately, it must be understood that Ms. Suu Kyi has no good option and that this is her one defense.  Casual observers, like her celebrity critics, might not realize that she heads a government that does not really exist.  It’s just for show.  The generals control everything important, like the Rohingya issue, and it would be foolish to think Ms. Suu Kyi can oppose them in any meaningful way.  She could speak out regardless, like a saint would, and then suffer the consequences.  But we now know her heart isn’t with the victims, that she is very much part of the Buddhist nationalist majority.  U.S. diplomats, justifying their role in pushing the Obama administration to welcome Myanmar’s “democracy,” still defend her.  Why should she hang herself, perhaps quite literally, with a useless defense for the Rohingya?  Wouldn’t she be better sticking around with a slight upper hand and work to gradually steer the generals toward the light?  After all, it’s not like the generals are alone on this issue.  Many citizens despise the Rohingya and are pleased to see the departure of a group they regard as troublesome foreigners.  As a government official put it recently, “The narrative is that Muslims are migrants.  They are basically the guests of this country, yet they insult their host.”

Ms. Suu Kyi’s defenders say she’s actually restrained a rambunctious army to some extent, that the toll of misery would’ve been bigger without her.  Nobody on the outside of this highly insular nation can claim to know the truth.  Maybe Ms. Suu Kyi is a semi-saint, quietly preventing full-scale genocide while an angry and misinformed world lashes out at her.  Yet, this is a woman who has actively blocked aid groups from Rakhine and brazenly accused them of helping terrorists.  For sure, we know that if she took the moral high ground she’d be loved abroad and hated, perhaps even murdered, at home.  Thus, before completely dismissing Suu Kyi, we should all understand this.

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