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Myanmar and the Rohingya Muslims: There is no quick, morally satisfying solution

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi
REUTERS/Fred Dufour
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi wouldn’t be the first politician to make one tactical decision after another, intending to take a stand on principle sometime in the future – only to see it slip away and be left fighting mostly to maintain a grip on power.

When Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest by Myanmar’s military authorities seven years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize winner made clear she wanted to be regarded thereafter as a politician rather than a human rights icon.

Since then, she has won elections that made her the most powerful civilian in the country. But as a politician, her global reputation has suffered because of the human rights disaster facing Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. More than 600,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh since August, fleeing soldiers who have killed, raped and torched villages. The U.N. says this a clear case of ethnic cleansing, an assessment seconded by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after he visited the country last week.

Suu Kyi has responded largely with denials and platitudes, earning the criticism of fellow Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. She has no obligation to be the saint we imaged, or that Tutu expects her to be. In many ways, that would be easier. Having chosen the path of politics, she faces all the practical obstacles and moral ambiguities it presents.

We can only guess whether her private thoughts match her public pronouncements. Perhaps she has a blind spot when it comes to the Rohingya, who are regarded by many Myanmar Buddhists as little more than interloping Bengali Muslims not worthy of citizenship. The term Rohingya itself is fraught. Even though he made a strong defense of human rights, Pope Francis avoided it during a visit to Myanmar this week.

Hemmed in by the army

Perhaps Suu Kyi, herself a Buddhist, has made a political calculation not to alienate the Buddhist majority by speaking up for the Rohingya. She certainly is hemmed in by the army, which still holds tremendous power. By law, the army does not answer to civilian rule and it retains control of ministries handling defense, home affairs and borders. Even if she wanted to help, she may not be able to do much.

Suu Kyi has a tough job — perhaps too tough. And it’s possible that she actually is not a very good politician, as the New York Times’ Roger Cohen suggests in this long, thoughtful report.

But politician she is, and there is a long, slippery slope before her. Myanmar has 135 recognized ethnic groups, and several more internal conflicts as violent and complicated as the one involving the Rohingya. She wouldn’t be the first politician to make one tactical decision after another, intending to take a stand on principle sometime in the future – only to see it slip away and be left fighting mostly to maintain a grip on power.

Suu Kyi did preside over a national gathering aimed at bringing armed rebel groups into a peace process. But the violence has gotten worse.

This round of violence actually started with attacks by groups of Rohingya militants, but there has been trouble for many years in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, located along the Indian Ocean.

Other conflicts in Myanmar

Amnesty International issued a report this summer on other conflicts, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states, which it said had displaced nearly 100,000 people. It found that rebel groups abduct civilians, forcibly recruit fighters and impose “taxes” on villages. But soldiers “mete out torture and extrajudicial executions, shell civilian villages indiscriminately and place punitive restrictions on movement and humanitarian access.”

There is also a long-running insurgency by Karen rebels along the Thai border in eastern Myanmar. The government has largely defeated the insurgency, but Human Rights Watch said in an annual report for 2016 that fighting has worsened there, too.

The Rohingyas may present the thorniest problem, but together these conflicts present Suu Kyi with quite a dilemma. If she stays quiet or tacks toward the military, she does nothing to stop the fighting and makes a mockery of her goal of unifying the country. If she speaks out, she alienates the military and a large percentage of the population that voted for her National League for Democracy.

The options

In this useful primer, Lex Rieffel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that taking a clear moral stand would probably result in a parliamentary vote of no confidence that would shred Suu Kyi’s power.

There is no quick, morally satisfying solution. The best option might start with measured international pressure to ensure the Rohingya can go home.

Suu Kyi could try to use the pressure to show the military it must change its ways in order for the country (and the generals individually) to be accepted by the international community. If the army doesn’t simply backpedal, or embrace their neighbor to the north, China (which doesn’t usually let human rights issues stand in its way), a long treacherous process of reconciliation might start. Maybe it would work; maybe it wouldn’t.

Such is the life of a politician. As Rieffel noted, quoting one of his sources: “It’s fair to say that Myanmar is a heaven for saints who rebel and a graveyard for those who govern.”

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