YANGON – Human-rights abuses in Myanmar’s Rakhine state have led to mounting international condemnation and calls for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry. The atrocities there must be investigated, and their perpetrators held to account. But the situation in Rakhine is now fueling criticism of Myanmar’s de facto head of government, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, in a way that is obscuring the military’s responsibility in the crisis.
Condemning Suu Kyi, a former dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, for not using her position as a megaphone to address the problem may be emotionally satisfying, but it does not help those most in need. It is simply wrong to say that Suu Kyi has done nothing in the face of the horrors being perpetrated in Rakhine. One must remember that Myanmar is undergoing a fragile political transition, under a constitution that gives the military a leading role in national politics, while constraining Suu Kyi.
Given that atrocities are still being committed, it would be premature to excuse or defend any of Myanmar’s leaders. But we should identify the right targets for criticism. Suu Kyi has been hung out to dry while Myanmar’s generals – who misruled the country for decades – have been allowed to step back as the conflict escalates.
And Suu Kyi’s critics should recognize that the generals have reserved the capacity to step back in, should she suffer too much political damage. Myanmar’s 2008 military-decreed constitution allows them to stage a coup d’état whenever they deem it necessary to restore order. The international community should not let itself be held hostage by this possibility; but it must be borne in mind.