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.
Although Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy to an overwhelming victory in the 2015 parliamentary election, she does not have complete authority over the government or the state. The fact that she was barred from occupying the presidency, and forced to accept the title of “State Counsellor,” speaks to the inadequacies of Myanmar’s constitution. The generals never intended to let a civilian government hold them to account.
As State Counsellor, Suu Kyi has the same responsibilities as other heads of state, but not nearly as much power. The military’s commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, meanwhile, has little responsibility, but far more power than Suu Kyi.
So, rather than focusing solely on Suu Kyi, the international community should be pressing the military and the Rakhine State parliament to work alongside the government and other parties toward peace. They can start by helping to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Suu Kyi has already committed her government to enacting the commission’s recommendations, and it is now time for the military and Rakhine officials to do the same.
There is also an urgent need for stronger commitments at the international level: to help provide services, defend the rule of law – in Rakhine and in Myanmar generally – and search for lasting solutions to the crisis. Curtailing development aid, as some of Suu Kyi’s critics have proposed, would only serve the military’s interests. Simply put, creating a culture that respects human rights and the rule of law – long ignored and violated in Myanmar – won’t happen overnight.
That is why the international community should back a long-term strategy of support for Myanmar, while condemning abuses when they occur. International inquiries and fact-finding missions will not put an end to the violence, and could even inflame an already volatile situation. According to the International Crisis Group, developments in Rakhine took a “dangerous turn” in October 2016, when Rohingya Muslim militants – who have been radicalized, armed, and funded from abroad – launched a series of attacks against border-guard outposts.
Among all of the stakeholders, Myanmar’s military has the most power to end the conflict. An armed insurgency was allowed to radicalize and foment strife and division in Rakhine on the generals’ watch. If the generals cannot move beyond their traditional modus operandi of command, control and, in this case, containment, they should bear the blame for the crisis.
Myanmar’s government, despite having far less power than the military, has taken action to find long-term solutions that will secure a lasting peace. But achieving peace will be a long, painful process. Rakhine state has not experienced peace or prosperity for more than half a century. After decades of colonization, military rule, ethnic and religious conflict, and civil wars, Rakhine has been left in a state of abject poverty and division.
This grim history includes the Japanese occupation during World War II, which precipitated the 1942 Arakan massacres – a period of communal violence between British V Force-armed Kamam Muslims (today’s Rohingya) and Buddhist Rakhine villagers. Today, against the backdrop of the North Arakan Muslim League’s demand for annexation to Pakistan and the Mujahid Party’s effort to secure an autonomous state within Rakhine, a separatist Arakanese Independence Movement has been actively, and often violently, pursuing independence.
No UN Commission of Inquiry can unpack this history. Creating a peaceful, prosperous state and society in Rakhine will take slow, deliberate actions that are aimed specifically at building trust and a culture of respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Only Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief, has the power to launch a genuine reconciliation effort. He would do well to ignore Suu Kyi’s critics, and to listen to those who are calling on him to work collaboratively with her government. There is no other path to peace.