Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi have much in common beyond the spiraling Rohingya refugee crisis now plaguing both of their elected governments.
Both leaders are the daughters of fathers who spearheaded their countries’ respective struggles for sovereign freedom. And both lost those national founding fathers to untimely deaths before they could fully liberate and govern the nations they forged.
Hasina and Suu Kyi have fought bitter protracted struggles to restore democracy against repressive military juntas. As elected leaders, they both live under constant threat of conspiracies to unseat them, as they bid to varying degrees of success to tame their powerful militaries and disruptive religious fundamentalist forces often backed by men in uniform.
Yet the two daughters of independence heroes differ in important ways that has set them apart in the international eye.
The daughter of a diplomat, Suu Kyi was educated in India and in many ways is more British than Burmese owing to her ‘Oxbridge’ education. While popularly adored as a pro-democracy icon, her elite background has inhibited a common touch, a disconnect critics say makes her aloof and out of touch with her nation’s entrenched conflict and poverty.
While held in house arrest as a military political prisoner for 15 of 21 years, a period of non-violent resistance that earned her an almost saintly global reputation, she has taken a kid gloves approach to the military since winning elected power, partly out of political necessity but also born of the fact that her independence hero father Aung San helped to found the national armed forces.
Hasina survived the assassination of almost her entire family, and likewise spent years in India before returning to revitalize her father’s Awami League party and bring down the Hussain Muhammad Ershad-led military junta in a fierce street agitation, the likes of which South Asia had never seen.
She led the party to electoral victories in 1996 and 2008 and is now serving a third term. With a clear vision to lift Bangladesh to middle-income status by 2021, a leading role in women’s empowerment and a zero-tolerance for terrorism, Hasina has arguably saved her country from the jihadist destruction and instability seen in Pakistan. She has also been lauded for her deft balancing of China, India and the US.
Most importantly, Hasina has managed to keep the once all-powerful military under firm civilian control while taking stiff security measures to uproot Islamic extremist groups.
While there are occasional reports of unease among a section of Pakistan-trained officers who feel she is too close to India, there has been no open challenge to her civilian supremacy since the last military-backed caretaker was swept from power in December 2008 polls.
Hasina’s year-old ‘Tepid Punch’ counterterrorism drive, launched in response to the July 1, 2016 terror attack on a Dhaka café that killed 20 mostly foreigners, has netted 1,200 and killed 90 Islamic militants, a hard-knuckled campaign that has arguably prevented Islamic State from making deeper inroads in the country.
Suu Kyi, once a global pro-democracy darling, has so far failed in comparison. Myanmar’s autonomous military has undercut her signature national peace initiative through ramped up offensives against rebels in Shan and Kachin states.
It’s “clearance operation” against Rohingya rebels has also caused massive civilian displacement and amid widespread reports of human rights abuses has fast restored the pariah status Myanmar held during decades of direct and repressive military rule.
Analysts believe Suu Kyi’s inability to rein in her military could eventually cost Hasina her leadership. Hasina faces parliamentary elections next year and the refugee crisis promises to be a divisive issue as her government’s already thin resources are stretched to accommodate over 400,000 new refugees from Myanmar.
That’s brought the two woman leaders into personal conflict. Suu Kyi, despite her Nobel Peace Prize pedigree, has failed to restrain her armed forces from committing alleged mass atrocities against the Rohingya as part of so-called ‘clearance operations’ the United Nations has said amount to ‘ethnic cleansing.’ It’s unclear how many of the refugees her government is willing to take back in a citizenship “verification” process.
Sensing an imminent crisis, Hasina had earlier offered to launch joint military operations along their shared border areas from where Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militants launched their fateful August 25 attacks. Myanmar’s apparent unwillingness to engage such joint action points to a military intelligence failure that has contributed to the escalating crisis.
Some analysts believe the Myanmar military’s abuses could lure global jihadists into the fight.
While Suu Kyi has come across as indecisive and even callous in her comments on the humanitarian crisis now centered in Bangladesh, Hasina’s heartfelt appeals for international aid, safe zones and Myanmar military restraint have been more in tune with international sentiments. She said during a visit to teeming Rohingya refugee camp that the situation left her “speechless.”
In muted comparison, Suu Kyi eschewed the United Nations’ General Assembly just as the humanitarian crisis reached a fever pitch.
While Suu Kyi’s hard line has resonated with certain nationalistic groups, it has simultaneously led certain commentators to suggest the Nobel Institute should consider withdrawing her peace award. At the same time, Hasina is now being nominated for the same prestigious prize for her exceptional leadership in combating climate change, frequent natural disasters and crushing poverty.
It will thus be a great irony if Suu Kyi’s inaction on the Rohingya crisis acts to eventually knock Hasina’s secular government from elected power, as the Islamic fundamentalist-backed political opposition seizes on the Rohinyga crisis to score religious and nationalistic points in an election season.
While Hasina has worked to restore a sense of national pride in Bangladesh, Suu Kyi’s handling of the same Rohingya crisis has diminished her image and legacy as a non-violent force for peace and good.