Despite the outcry, Aung San Suu Kyi does not deserve most of the blame for the tragedy unfolding in Myanmar. The Nobel Foundation got it right.
The Foundation announced this month that it will not withdraw its 1991 Peace Prize award to Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the stampede by other groups to cancel the honors that they heaped on her when she was campaigning for democracy in Myanmar.
As the Nobel Foundation put it, it is “regrettable” that the laureate has not done more, now that she is the civilian leader of her country, to stop the violence against the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar. But her prize will not be withdrawn for two good reasons.
First and foremost, the committee’s rules do not allow the withdrawal of awards. Second, even if the Peace Prize could be revoked, doing so would trigger questions about the conduct of other recipients since they received the prize, leading to a revisionist slippery slope. Did President Barack Obama do enough to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria? Did Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat siphon off millions intended to help the Palestinian people? Was Henry Kissinger a great statesman or a war criminal for prolonging bombing in Cambodia and Vietnam?
A third reason could well be added: The real blame for the continuing violence against ethnic groups in Myanmar should be heaped on Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, not Aung San Suu Kyi. He is the head of the army, known as the Tatmadaw, which still retains the lion’s share of power in Myanmar.
It is the Tatmadaw that has forced more than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya to flee into neighboring Bangladesh, and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of them in squalid detention camps. It is the Tatmadaw that has herded villagers into houses only to burn them down. It is the Tatmadaw that has gang-raped hundreds of women, with soldiers reportedly going door to door looking for the prettiest young women to rape. And it is the Tatmadaw that has tortured unarmed civilians and murdered children.
The blame for these horrors should be should be laid at the door of General Min Aung Hlaing, who has indeed carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Facebook rightly has cancelled Min Aung Hlaing’s Facebook pages, which have been used to rally support for the military campaigns. The United States has targeted sanctions against him. That should be just the beginning of efforts to publicly call out and pressure the baby-faced general, who is sensitive to criticism. He can rein in the military; Aung San Suu Kyi can’t.
Too often, what many commentators and outside interest groups fail to recognize is that the military still controls three of the most powerful cabinet positions in Myanmar (Defense, Interior, and Border Affairs), which gives them a lock on security matters. In addition, most of the civil service workers tasked with running the country’s bureaucracy are former military members or their appointees. And thanks to the military-written constitution, the army is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in Parliament for uniformed officers, plus more seats held by their political party, giving them a veto over any changes to the constitution that would reduce their power. The Sisyphean task of convincing the military to share more power continues to hobble Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
This is not to say Aung San Suu Kyi is blameless. She has not handled the violence against minority groups with the same grace and verbal dexterity as when she was a political prisoner and inspired the democracy effort. She lost global support when she dismissed some reports of human rights abuses as fake. She lost credibility when she said the three generals in her cabinet were “rather sweet.”
In recent months, she has seemed either uninformed or willfully blind when she claimed that two Reuters journalists, who were sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting about a Rohingya massacre, had been tried fairly under the rule of law. In fact, during the investigative stage of the legal proceeding, a police captain testified that the journalists had been deliberately set up by security forces with planted information to justify their arrest under the Official Secrets Act. The police captain was immediately arrested himself and not allowed to give further testimony. This is not the kind of due process that rule of law should guarantee, nor the kind of freedom of the press that Aung San Suu Kyi used to support. She was wrong to say their case “had nothing to do with freedom of expression.” The new reports that three more journalists have been arrested this week are troubling.
Still, it is not true, as some persist in reporting, that Suu Kyi has never spoken out about the persecution of the Rohingya and has not used her position as civilian leader of the country to stop the bloodshed. She has said repeatedly that she is against violence and for equal treatment of all minorities. One of her first acts after her party won a majority in the 2015 elections was to name a blue-ribbon commission headed by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General, to examine the Rohingya situation and make recommendations. “Be bold,” she told Annan, and he was. She sent the commission report to Parliament with the instruction that the recommendations be approved. Yet barely a day later, Islamic radicals attacked Burmese police stations and the Tatmadaw responded in force, heaping horror after horror on the Rohingya population in Rakhine state.
Could Aung San Suu Kyi have stopped the slaughter as critics suggest? No, because she has no control over the armed forces, who report directly to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing rather than the civilian government. Should she have condemned the military in stronger terms than saying the Rohingya issue “could have been handled better”? Yes—and no. She certainly could have articulated the issues more adroitly, but condemning the military would have been political suicide—or worse—in the current imbalance of power.
Dark forces and corruption are constant, invidious challenges. Radical monks continue to inflame anti-Muslim anger in the country, which has stirred up tribal identities and nationalism, strengthening the military’s claim that its strong hand is necessary to keep the country stable. The assassination of constitutional lawyer Ko Ni last year, in public view at the Yangon airport no less, was a not-so-subtle message to Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. It was Ko Ni who came up with the suggestion that a little-known provision in the constitution be used to name Suu Kyi “State Counselor” since Article 59 bars her from serving as President. The provision had originally been inserted in case the former senior general, Than Shwe, wanted a position in the new government. The military was not pleased when Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy beat them at their own game by granting the position to her. Many observers took the killing of Ko Ni as a warning: “We can get you at any time.”
Suu Kyi has responded by playing a long game, saying that progress toward greater democracy must come a step at a time. Away from the headlines, she has recruited some talented economists to further reforms in finance, no easy task considering the economic mess the military had left during 50 years of misrule. She announced plans for a civilian effort to deliver humanitarian aid and help resettle the Rohingya Muslims, though that initiative has been stalled. Most of the Annan commission recommendations have been implemented by Parliament. Dialogue continues in Parliament on possible reforms in the Constitution that would reduce military control, one difficult tweak at a time. Progress remains fragile.
On a recent trip to Japan, Suu Kyi acknowledged that there are many who would like a “quick fix” to the situation in Rakhine state, who want everything “done immediately and quickly.” But, she said, “we can’t afford to do that, because we have to cope with the consequences in the long run.”
Which brings us back to the debate over Aung San Suu Kyi and her role going forward. As a Nobel Prize-winning activist, Suu Kyi had the right patriotic pedigree, photogenic looks, and language skills to rally public opinion to the democracy struggle. As an elected leader, she is still learning how to govern in a restrictive environment and has not yet found an effective voice. She will need to explain the present difficulties to the world with much more clarity.
Those who have known and watched Suu Kyi for many years are not surprised by some of the mistakes she has made. They know her stubbornness, her temper, and her longtime respect for the military founded by her father, General Aung San. They know she is not a perfect person, but they realize she is still a necessary person.
At the age of 73, Suu Kyi may have another five years to keep nudging internal reforms forward. Her party, which also has had difficulty learning to lead in such a fraught environment, may be able to eke out enough votes in 2020 to keep chipping away at military reforms while a new generation of elected leaders and military leaders moves up.
In the meantime, measures supporting wider sanctions are floating around Congress in response to the Rohingya tragedy. The U.S. government should move as judiciously as the Nobel Commission when considering appropriate penalties. The goal should be to punish the military leaders perpetuating violence, not the people of Myanmar who have endured so much.
As Priscilla Clapp, the former U.S. Chief of Mission in Myanmar, has pointed out, many of the current disputes in the country are the result of centuries-old ethnic animosities and resentment of foreign influence in Myanmar, primarily during the colonial period of British control. Reducing American economic ties and aid, along with the U.S. ability to work with the government, could prove counter-productive. As she put it to me, “We need to be in there working as hard as we can to change popular attitudes and help them build the institutions that underpin sustainable democracy. We won’t be able to do that if we isolate ourselves.”
Now is not the right time for the U.S. government to be seen dictating to the new leaders, or sanctioning them merely to satisfy its sense of righteousness. Now is the time for the U.S. government to reinforce people-to-people programs that build up the kind of economy and civil society that can counter military influence in the long term.
Published on: October 11, 2018
Rena Pederson, a former speechwriter at the U.S. Department of State, is the author of The Burma Spring (Pegasus Books, 2015).