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No saving grace in shaming Aung San Suu Kyi

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Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi looks on during the opening ceremony of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, 29 April 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Mark Crisanto).

In Brief

While the UN has described the latest atrocities in Myanmar against the Rohingya as textbook ethnic cleansing, the international shaming of Aung San Suu Kyi for her handling of the crisis is unhelpful. As an alternative, ASEAN should consider coordinated collective action to help Myanmar overcome the complex problem.


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In 1991, the international community honoured Aung San Suu Kyi with the Nobel Peace Prize while she was under house arrest. In 2015, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won power on a popular electoral mandate.

But in light of the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi has gone from democracy icon to international pariah practically overnight.

The city council of Oxford, where she studied as an undergraduate, decided to withdraw an honorary title it bestowed on her in 1997. The New Yorker named her ‘the ignoble laureate’ and Amnesty International accused her of ’untruths and victim blaming’. No less an icon than Desmond Tutu reportedly wrote to her: ‘If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep’.

Yet, the international community cannot summarily dismiss Suu Kyi’s counter-narrative of an ’iceberg of misinformation’ about the reality on the ground in Myanmar.

One story that is making rounds on Myanmar social media is that the attacks on 25 August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) were timed to provoke precisely the kind of harsh response from the Tatmadaw military that they achieved. The attacks occurred the day before the release of the Final Report by the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. According to this narrative, the ARSA attacks were calculated to doom the effort commissioned by Suu Kyi to map ‘a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine’.

The Rakhine situation is too complex for megaphone moral outrage. It is easy to forget that Suu Kyi’s NLD was elected to power amid a growing tide of communal mistrust. Many of the NLD’s electoral base regard the Rohingya as a late political construct that is now being used to legitimise old claims for greater autonomy and independence. Rakhine state is poor, and economic depravation affects also the ethinic Rakhine. Significantly, the NLD did not perform as well in Rakhine state as it did in the country as a whole.

Given these complexities, whether one believes Suu Kyi’s narrative or not, the international reaction to lambast Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful to all parties involved.

First, international moral outrage serves only to dull the voices of those in Myanmar who are against the demonisation of the Rohingya. It feeds the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that a democratic Myanmar is facing an existential crisis that Suu Kyi and her party are ill-disposed to address.

Second, the end of decades of isolation and sanctions has fanned expectations of the economic boom promised by democratic rule. But Myanmar’s economic growth has slowed this year. Reform has also been slow, not least because Suu Kyi was trying to do too much in too little time. If international opprobrium results in a return to sanctions, it could derail the already very late catch-up in a country that remains one of the poorest in ASEAN.

Third, Suu Kyi has the unenviable task of leading with one hand tied. She does not possess all the levers of power, as even her worst critics know. Her democratically elected government must ultimately work with the military. She needs all the help she can get, inside or outside Myanmar.

ASEAN issued a predictably anodyne statement on the Rakhine situation following an ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Not unexpectedly, Malaysia disassociated itself from the statement. In early 2017, Kuala Lumpur hosted a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation that issued a strong rebuke to the Myanmar government. Malaysia is, after all, host to nearly 60,000 UN-registered Rohingya refugees.

Yet ASEAN must acknowledge that the Rohingya crisis is no longer just a domestic problem. It has important implications for regional peace and stability, and if it is left alone, it will continue to be a festering wound that threatens to destabilise ASEAN’s entire operating environment and regional order.

ASEAN’s dialogue partner, India, is already threatening to deport its Rohingya refugees on the grounds of growing security concerns. Even if one doubts the hand of terrorist elements using the Rohingya as a shield, the chaos and scale of the humanitarian disaster is fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment, which is something that must concern all ASEAN countries.

It is time for ASEAN to consider a coordinated course of action and perhaps work with vested dialogue partners like China and India who can also engage Bangladesh.

Myanmar needs a regional solution. ASEAN would do well to undertake the kind of quiet diplomacy it has shown itself capable of, in reaching out across the spectrum of relevant stakeholders, including the Myanmar military.

For its part, Myanmar must eventually get past the prison of history and acknowledge the generations of Rohingya who call Myanmar home. Yet this conversation cannot happen with the world heaping on derision and threatening new economic sanctions against Myanmar and its popularly elected leader.

Kang Siew Kheng is Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She was formerly Singapore’s Ambassador to Laos.

The article was first published here on RSIS.

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