Reporters on the scene are saying that 300,000 or more members of the Rohingya community (of Muslim faith) in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have fled across the border into Muslim-majority Bangladesh in the past two weeks. The refugees have been describing to reporters a litany of human rights abuses: homes burned, women raped, men beheaded, and more.
Editorial writers and columnists around the world have slammed Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor and leader of the National League for Democracy of Myanmar, for allowing the atrocities to occur and have even demanded that the Nobel Committee withdraw the Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991.
As a scholar focusing on Myanmar for the past 10 years, during which I have visited the country more than a dozen times, I know how horrible the situation is. I have been to Rakhine state and have seen the Rohingya confined to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the state capital of Sittwe. At the same time, I believe that much of the media commentary is misdirected. It fails to describe the complex origins of the problem and explain how intractable it is.
The complex history of Rohingya and Myanmar
Let me try starting at the top and going backwards.
Why is Aung San Suu Kyi, the political leader of Myanmar, being “dethroned” by the international media and denounced by people who once idolized her?
She has not publicly condemned the operations of the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, that prompted the flight of Rohingya to relative safety in Bangladesh. I will explain later why “Daw Suu,” as she is referred at times by Burmese citizens, has not done this.
Why is the Tatmadaw conducting these operations?
A group of Muslims, described variously as “insurgents” or “terrorists,” launched fatal attacks on 30 police outposts in the area inhabited by the Rohingya (Rakhine State, one of 14 main administrative regions in the country) on August 25. This was not the first such operation. A smaller but substantial operation was conducted last year after attacks in early October 2015 on several Myanmar border guard posts along the border with Bangladesh.
Why did this Muslim group launch these attacks?
The Rohingya community, numbering 1.1 million people out of the country’s total population of 52 million according to the 2014 census, has been mistreated for decades by the Buddhist majority. Specifically, the Rohingya have been formally “stateless” for more than 20 years, thus depriving them of access to employment, education, health services, and freedom to move within the country. The Muslim group has labeled itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and has said it attacked the Myanmar military and police to protest the mistreatment of the Rohingya and seek full citizenship rights for them.
Why have the Rohingya been discriminated against for so long?
The mistreatment has deep historical roots and even involves controversy over the “Rohingya” ethnic label they have adopted. Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar insist on calling them “Bengali” to portray them as immigrants from Bangladesh—despite evidence that the ancestors of many in this community lived in Rakhine State before the British Empire conquered it in 1826, subsequently incorporating it into its India colony. In the five decades of military rule between 1962 and 2011, anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority Buddhist population was heavily reinforced by “alternative facts,” namely that the Muslims were outbreeding the Buddhists with the aim of making Myanmar an Islamic state. Compounding the problem, the 2 million Rakhine Buddhists feel that they have been oppressed by the Bamar Buddhists in the country’s heartland.
The current situation and Daw Suu’s response
Now let’s go back to the question of why Aung San Suu Kyi has not publicly denounced the military operations that are driving the Rohingya into Bangladesh. To answer this question, it’s important to understand her rise to power.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 80 percent of the parliament seats in the 2015 election, enabling them to form the first civilian-led government in more than 50 years—despite the Tatmadaw filling 25 percent of the total seats granted to them by the 2008 constitution.
A provision in the 2008 constitution that disqualifies anyone with children holding a foreign passport blocked Daw Suu from becoming president after the 2015 election (She married a British academic and has two sons born in the United Kingdom). She became the de facto leader of the government when the position of “state counselor” was created for her. She also took on the additional portfolio of foreign minister.
Despite being the leader of the government, Daw Suu has no control over the Tatmadaw because the 2008 constitution created a system of military supremacy.
If Daw Suu publicly condemns the Tatmadaw operations that have driven the Rohingya to Bangladesh, she will be condemning both the Tatmadaw and the voters who elected her party in 2015. As a result, her leadership position will probably become untenable.
Mistreatment of the Rohingya is arguably a smaller problem for Daw Suu than the civil war that has raged in Myanmar since independence, in which the Tatmadaw has been seeking to suppress around 20 armed ethnic minorities living in the mountainous borderlands with neighboring India, China, and Thailand. Her top priority since becoming the country’s political leader has been achieving peace with these minorities. Sadly, she seems a long way from even achieving a nationwide ceasefire and the current Rohingya crisis has the potential of making this goal even more elusive.
What can be done?
So what should Daw Suu be doing that she’s not doing and what should the rest of the world be doing?
As a foreigner living 12 time zones away and unable to speak the Burmese language, I do not feel qualified to answer the question. Many editorial writers and prominent personalities (Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama) have urged her to forcefully and publicly condemn the “counterterrorist” operations of the Tatmadaw directed at the Rohingya community. Doing so, I suspect, would lead to a kind of no-confidence vote in the parliament that would remove any vestiges of authority she may have. Others have argued that she can only retain her global credibility by resigning. I don’t believe that either option would lead to better treatment of the Rohingya. Instead, it is more likely to accelerate the exodus of the remaining Rohingya to Bangladesh.
The rest of the world cannot do much beyond yelling and gnashing its teeth. There is no love for the Rohingya among its neighboring powers: India, China, and Thailand. A military intervention of the kind that took place in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 seems out of the question, especially after failing to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moreover, there are equally horrible if not more horrible situations in other parts of the world: North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Venezuela, and elsewhere. The world has no effective mechanisms for solving these problems. The best it seems able to do is to provide token amounts of humanitarian assistance to the innocent victims of these conflicts.
Finally, here is a remarkable sound bite from a Chinese source: “It’s fair to say that Myanmar is a heaven for saints who rebel and a graveyard for those who govern.”