YANGON, MYANMAR - Since coming to power nine months ago, Myanmar’s de factor leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has represented the country at regional summits, met with the presidents of China and the United States, and supported the removal of longstanding economic sanctions.
In her twin roles as State Counselor and Foreign Minister, she has fulfilled a pledge made a few days before the election in November: that if her party won, which it did by a landslide, she would be “above the president,” a position she is barred from because her children are British citizens.
But an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state suggests she is not above the military, setting up an unprecedented test of her leadership that some believe she is failing.
The crisis started October 9, when militants from the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority attacked three border guard police posts in the northern part of the state, killing nine officers. The military moved on the territory in full force, arresting more than 500 people and killing at least 100. At least six soldiers have died.
Since the operation started, it has been tainted by dozens of allegations of sexual assault and other abuses. The United Nations says that more than 100,000 people have not been receiving normal aid assistance and close to 22,000 Rohingya have fled into nearby Bangladesh. In addition, security forces have allegedly razed more than 1,500 buildings, according to interviews and satellite imagery released by Human Rights Watch this week.
The government has vehemently denied allegations of rape and claimed residents burned their own houses down in an act of conflict propaganda. But the media is blocked from the area, making it difficult to assess claims from both sides.
Amid the chaos, the international community has been baffled by Suu Kyi’s apparent lack of engagement. She has not visited the conflict zone and has said very little about it in public. What she has said has not met the seriousness of the moment, critics claim, with one U.N. official calling on her to find her “inner voice.”
In an interview Suu Kyi gave to Channel News Asia that aired December 8, she placed the blame elsewhere.
“I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities instead of always drumming up calls for bigger fires of resentment,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s careful approach to the situation in Rakhine, which she called delicate and sensitive in the interview, is understandable.
The state is majority Buddhist, and tensions with the state’s Muslim community have simmered for decades, if not longer. Many in Myanmar, also known as Burma, believe the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh and that the term “Rohingya” itself is a political fabrication. In 2012, religiously motivated clashes in Rakhine killed hundreds and sent more than 120,000 into internal displacement camps, where most reside to this day.
Since coming to power in April, Suu Kyi created a committee on development in Rakhine, and a Rakhine advisory commission chaired by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The attacks did not help these efforts. Sympathetic observers point to the fact that the military is in charge of the security forces, and she has limited control over their actions. They also say that she is not as popular in Rakhine as she is in the rest of the country, making it more difficult to create allies on the ground.
But as the most popular political figure in the country with an overwhelming electoral mandate, she has plenty of other tools to work with and a moral obligation to do so, according to David Mathieson, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Myanmar.
“And in this case she is choosing not to speak out about a very unpopular cause when what she should be doing is saying: No, these are principles that apply to every single person living in this country, and it’s these kinds of abuses that we struggled for decades against and I’m not going to let it stand. And I don’t care what you all think, this is the right thing to do, to speak out about this stateless minority, and to say that the reports of abuses coming out should be properly investigated and those perpetrating them brought to account,” he said.
Mathieson said she should be making weekly addresses to the country or to the media, similar to what her predecessor, President Thein Sein, did. He added that she should also better control public information about the conflict being disseminated on official government social media channels, some of which he said has bordered on the inflammatory.
Lack of information
Myat Thu, the chairman of the Yangon School of Political Science, said that while many of Suu Kyi’s detractors don’t understand the complexities of the conflict, or the fact that she has to walk a fine line to maintain the popular support she needs to guide Myanmar’s democratic transition, some of her actions still confused him.
“Once she said that the international community made unfair criticism based on the very wrong data or information. But at the same time she didn’t talk about giving the media access to the region to show that the criticisms are baseless or something like that,” he said.
A former political prisoner, Myat Thu questioned why the country’s de facto leader, who spent a combined 15 years under house arrest, would believe everything she was told by the military when briefed on the topic, given their history of obscuring the truth in previous conflicts.
“In the past, the government media and military intelligence tried to take advantage of no media access and tried to make distorted information to make political gains,” he said. “So it is either she gives access to the media or she avoids saying the criticisms are baseless.”
The criticism of Suu Kyi’s actions, or lack thereof, is largely coming from the international community. At home, she still enjoys widespread support, and the government does not agree with what has been said about her.
“Firstly, all the international criticisms are rather very biased and it doesn’t reflect what is happening, the reality, what is actually happening in the Rakhine right now,” said Aye Aye Soe, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Myanmar. “We are trying our best and we will do our utmost to resolve the issue. We need political space and time to give us time to resolve them.”
She also disputed the perception that Suu Kyi has not said enough.
“I think she is very outspoken, she has been talking about this issue all the time not only domestically inside but whenever she is abroad, interviews, what her views are what we are doing what we need to do. I think it’s more like the people concerned, whoever they are, refuse to listen,” she said.
Aye Aye Soe confirmed that Suu Kyi, who holds the title of foreign minister, will meet with her ASEAN counterparts December 19 in Myanmar to discuss issues in Rakhine, but said not to expect any formal decision after the gathering.
“It’s not a meeting to call an agreement. They are just going to express their views, have a chance to bring to the attention of the other member states whatever is happening here and there. So it’s a chance for them to have an open talk on various topics of their concerns,” she said.
The Rohingya crackdown has rattled normally stable ASEAN, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak taking the unusual step this month of attending a rally in support of the Muslim minority and calling what’s happening in Rakhine “genocide.” His remarks were dismissed by the government as an attempt to deflect criticism from his own administration, which is dealing with an epic corruption scandal and other woes.
Echoing the foreign ministry spokesperson, Sithu Aung Myint, a local columnist who writes about politics, took issue with the way Suu Kyi has been condemned abroad, arguing it doesn’t reflect the big picture.
“This is just the opinion by some people from the international community. They just said it without looking carefully. Actually, she is handling this issue very carefully and working,” he said. “She has a lot of trouble. If she is going to do something, she has to face the terrorists and also international pressure and the military too. People from the international community just don’t see this. Actually, she is performing well.”