Myanmar’s foreign minister and de-facto leader is caught between conflicting international and domestic pressures over the Rohingya crisis, but Daniel P Sullivan argues she can harness the growing chorus of international criticism to break down the barriers to change.
There is a growing dissonance between the international outcry over the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and the muted actions of the Myanmar Government. While international voices, from Myanmar’s neighbours to the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, have expressed dire warnings, the government’s reactions have ranged from silence to outright denial.
Despite heavy restrictions on access to the crisis area, numerous independent reports have emerged citing the burning of villages, rapes, the indiscriminate use of helicopter gunships and torture. These reports have been gathered from journalists and human rights groups by interviewing Rohingya who have fled the country to Bangladesh, from satellite images analysed by Human Rights Watch, from accounts collected by the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar and video evidence.
Although the Rohingya crisis has been highlighted by some in the international community for many years, the escalation and direct involvement of the Myanmar army since October 2016 has led to unprecedented criticism being voiced, even from among Myanmar’s allies in the region. The Prime Minister of Malaysia has been particularly vocal and, under increasing regional pressure, in December last year, Aung San Suu Kyi convened a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon to discuss the crisis. A group of Nobel Laureates sent a letter to the UN Security Council urging intervention in Myanmar and criticising fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for not doing more to stop abuses against the Rohingya. Most recently, on 19 January this year, the Organization of the Islamic Conference held an Extraordinary Session on the Rohingya crisis with its Foreign Ministers and expressed “grave concern”, calling for Myanmar to address the humanitarian crisis, hold perpetrators of abuses accountable and ultimately address the root causes by granting citizenship to the Rohingya.
The reaction from the Myanmar government has been to deny or ignore these reports. Official statements have blamed the burning of villages on the Rohingya themselves, accused lightly armed Rohingya with instigating the helicopter gunship attacks and claimed there was no basis for the alleged abuses. A state investigatory commission, led by a former general, denied that abuses were taking place, found no cases of malnutrition and said in an interim report that “there were no cases of genocide and religious persecution”.
The Myanmar Government rightly points out that the latest attacks were instigated by an attack on police border stations, reportedly by Rohingya militants, which killed nine officers. But the response has been far from proportional, doling out a form of collective punishment marked not only by indiscriminate attacks and mass arrests but also by blocking access to aid which has affected the most vulnerable in Rakhine State. The UN has said 160,000 people dependent on life-saving aid have been cut off from receiving it and (in sharp contrast to the commission’s findings) reported spiking rates of malnutrition.
The government’s denial and underplaying of the situation stems from complex domestic dynamics including the ongoing influence of the military and the widely shared prejudices held against the Rohingya. The military, which dominated Myanmar’s government for decades before reforms in recent years, is employing familiar tactics against ethnic minority groups in the country. It retains power over the Border, Home Affairs, and Defence ministries and holds an effective veto over any constitutional change with its 25 per cent of guaranteed parliamentary seats.
In addition to these power constraints, Suu Kyi also faces the political obstacle of public opinion being largely against the Rohingya, who are viewed by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Prevailing prejudices developed over decades have been stoked by influential nationalist Buddhist monks in recent years who continue to paint the Rohingya as an existential threat to the majority Burman Buddhist culture.
But Suu Kyi, and even many within the army’s ranks, also care about the country’s international standing, and the international outcry has not been completely ignored by the Myanmar Government. Suu Kyi continues to refuse to use the term “Rohingya” or address their lack of citizenship, but has shown a willingness to engage partners on the issue in more general terms. Before the latest crisis, she appointed an international advisory committee chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to advise on solutions in Rakhine State. Suu Kyi invited a group of ASEAN foreign ministers to Myanmar to discuss the crisis and sent a high-level special envoy to Bangladesh to begin a dialogue on the 65,000 Rohingya who have fled from Myanmar into the country since October. The police officers caught abusing Rohingya on video have been detained with Suu Kyi saying they would be held accountable. And in recent weeks, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar was allowed to visit parts of Rakhine State and the World Food Program reported increased humanitarian access, though still far below pre-crisis levels.
Suu Kyi is caught in a tough place, between growing international criticism and domestic limitations bolstered by widely-shared prejudices against the Rohingya. In her own words, she has shed her human rights icon image, believing she can do more as a politician. If Suu Kyi is to be the successful politician she purports to be, she should use the leverage created by the international outcry to effect domestic change. Holding accountable those caught blatantly committing abuses on video is a start, but much more can and should be done. Suu Kyi could welcome the increasing calls, including from within her own country, for an independent international investigation and, at the very least, do all she can to ensure access by independent journalists and humanitarians.
This article is published in collaboration with New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.