Can Pope Francis help with her effective silence over the Rohingya crisis being perpetrated by Myanmar’s military that is a measure of her government’s helplessness?
For the past three weeks, the world has watched aghast as Myanmar’s military has carried out the latest, most deadly, phase of a five years’ operation against the Muslim Rohingya people who number about 1.1-1.3 million. It has been an outrageously outsized reaction, by Myanmar’s notorious military known as the Tatmadaw, to a small attack by what is thus far a threadbare insurgency that has taken clearer shape as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It’s little surprise that the Rohingya, who have suffered waves of persecution and terrorization by Myanmar’s military – and Burma’s before it – for countless decades, have finally decided to fight back. That is now being used as an excuse for what the United National High Commissioner for Refugees has called a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. In forcing roughly half the Rohingya population from their homes, it’s hard to call it anything else.
At the same time, the world has been bewildered then dismayed as arguably the most internationally (and domestically) beloved Nobel Peace Prize Laureate since Nelson Mandela, Myanmar’s state councillor, foreign minister and de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has remained all but silent. When she has opened her mouth, it has only been to put her foot in it by introducing red herrings such as the complicity of NGOs in the insurgency. She remains unable, for largely political reasons, to utter the word Rohingya or even to make comments of any concern about the fate of the latest victims of one of the world’s most murderous militaries. Myanmar’s military also controls the police force and the border force. It likewise holds 25 percent of the seats in all Myanmar’s federal and state parliaments, unelected.
Few have bothered to dig into the deeply complex political minefield that is modern Myanmar. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, despite winning the country’s 2015 poll in a landslide with almost 80 percent of the vote, are very much the junior, powerless partners in an invidious power sharing arrangement that seems to have so easily tricked the rest of the world. Yet it is Suu Kyi, helpless to stop any of the military’s continuing attacks on citizens around the country, who has been almost universally slammed by a western media always keen to be quick with their moral judgments.
One thing rarely mentioned is the fact that there are 2 million largely ethnic Rakhine Buddhists who also live in the state that bears their name; decades of propaganda from the military, and the hard-line Buddhist monk groups they fund, have fanned the flames of Islamophobia in Rakhine and much of central, largely Buddhist, Myanmar. While the Rakhine people have fought their own battles against the centre, it is they that the clear majority of Myanmar’s citizens and Sun Kyi’s supporters are supporting. For her to speak up for the Rohingya in any meaningful way and oppose the military operation, as distinct from the military itself, would be to shun her own support base. This is her invidious bind. Media propaganda that the crisis is all the work of the insurgents has worked like a charm in central Yangon on the evidence of a visit there last week. Other former Nobel Prize winners, such as Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai who has spoken out against Suu Kyi, are themselves bad mouthed by the Barmans, the majority ethnic group that includes Aung Sa Suu Kyi, in Yangon and elsewhere.
As hideous as the events now roiling Rakhine are, it is far from the only place in Myanmar where Suu Kyi has been powerless to halt the murderous campaigns of the Tatmadaw. In northern Kachin State and neighbouring Shan State, there have been ongoing civil wars that have so far left 130,000 people in IDP camps and which continue to quietly escalate on borders with China and India. And another 100,000 plus people remain in nine camps along the western border with Thailand, many afraid to return across territory dotted with unmarked landmines.
It’s true enough that Suu Kyi has never appeared to have much time for her country’s ethnic minorities nor has she held out the promise of a federated Myanmar. Yet neither has she ever made any public or even reported private statements about the Islamophobia that is starkly apparent across Myanmar. This has been whipped up by nationalistic Buddhist monks funded by the military. This is what sits at the centre of the lack of popular disgust over what is occurring in the country’s west, to the Rohingya.
Yet her government has accepted all the recommendations of a report put together by a handpicked group of international crisis experts lead by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, something the military’s political arm — the Union Solidarity and Development Party — has spoken out against.
All of this is part of a trap that Suu Kyi has found herself in, possibly willingly at first, set by the generals. Sanctions have been taken off by the West, investment has poured in, military chiefs are welcomed in western capitals, yet the generals still run the place and conflict continues apace. Now, the generals appear to be actively determined to tear her reputation down and make her stand by helplessly watching.
Looming fast is the upcoming visit of Pope Francis at the end of November. His visit is about so much more than the Rohingya but it is focused on peace and the much broader conflict and refugee issues that Myanmar continues to face in its north and east. Having been rebuffed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly Hindu nationalist government in India for a planned visit there at the end of November, the canny pontiff chose Myanmar as his first stop on a two-country trip that ends in neighbouring Bangladesh. His visit will be all the more powerful in that these two nations are what the Argentine likes to refer to as the peripheries, with barely 1 million Catholics between a combined population of about 230 million people.
Local Catholics who may be concerned that the Rohingya issue, now very much a problem shared by the two impoverished neighbours, will overshadow more “Catholic” issues on his trip are missing the point. Pope Francis sees the Rohingya as part and parcel of Myanmar’s overall decades long conflict and his commitment is to try and help bring peace to what remains one of Asia’s most troubled countries.
As a person, Suu Kyi has demonstrated considerable faith, strength and will to fight for what is right in the past and she should take strength from the pope, a leader who has learned from his own past failures to do more now. Jose Maria Bergoglio himself had to stand face to face with generals in his own country, Argentina. He then had to make compromises and he now battles an existing power structure in a Vatican bent on the retention of its own power and self-interest rather than peace or general benefit.
It is clear that Suu Kyi’s effective silence is a measure of her government’s impotency — and that in and of itself is yet another looming tragedy for a country that has suffered more than any one nation should have to bear. This situation is now very clearly another ever-deeper ditch to be navigated on Myanmar’s road to some better form of representative government. It does not mean she is defeated and it does not mean she has a long-term plan. But certainly, on these issues, she appears determined to keep her own counsel as well as that of a close-knit group of advisers. It is they, not external commentators, who are the only ones that really know the crushing pressures she is under and surely anything is better than a return to the previous military absolutism in every part of Burmese life under the junta.
The horror of the Rohingya crisis is not remotely a domestic political problem for Suu Kyi. Disturbingly it seems to be the opposite. Yet she seems, since embarking on the last overtly political phase of her remarkable life, nonetheless to have lost something of her nerve in dealing with the generals no matter what red lines they may have drawn for her in this issue. She has said repeatedly that she is not “a human rights organization” but a politician. But now — with the Rohingya where they are — that is not quite enough.
Despite all the cards stacked against her, and as understandable as it is from a ruthlessly political standpoint domestically, she has a challenge — if she is to cling onto any semblance of moral credibility. With her vast international fan base that was so useful in helping her politically, she must now tap deep into her experience of living on her wits. She needs to find a way to end her galling stasis on the Rohingya. Just maybe, Pope Francis can help her.
Michael Sainsbury is a journalist and photographer based in Manila.