Myanmar’s internationally feted democratic transition went into a downward spiral of vilification over the past year, as global horror over the mass expulsion of Rohingya Muslims dominated news cycles and turned the West against one of its celebrated icons, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The international obsession over the desperate plight of the Rohingya has largely guided Western engagement with Myanmar over the past five years, often in isolation of other complex and long term challenges related to the nationwide peace process, escalating armed conflicts, a sputtering economy and widespread poverty.
The issues are all the legacy of decades of military misrule often ignored in recent international denunciation. Myanmar’s allure as Asia’s final frontier has now been irreparably tarnished, while the many policy priorities of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government have been imperiled over its incompetent and pitiless response to the Rakhine state crisis.
The crisis has been exhaustively covered, not always with great accuracy by the international media, but the sheer scale of the ethnic cleansing campaign is succinctly captured in the harrowing figures. In three months, over 655,000 people fled Myanmar into Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, over 350 villages were burned down, and, according to conservative estimates by Medicens Sans Frontiers (MSF), 6,700 people may have been killed by security forces and vigilantes.
Reports from Bangladesh indicate widespread shooting at fleeing Rohingya, sexual violence, torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Reports of the discovery of mass graves in Rakhine state’s Maungdaw district should come as no surprise given the scale and speed of the military’s ‘clearance operation’ in response to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s (ARSA) late August insurgent attacks.
But the Rakhine crisis has crystalized a pathology that has marred Myanmar’s transition and threatens to derail or divert the civilian elected government: the insular, aloof and defiant tone of State Counsellor Suu Kyi and her refusal to publicly frame the all-powerful military as the main obstacle to democratic, economic, legal and social reforms.
In a death rattle of democratic principles, Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing have synchronized denials over the scale of the carnage in Rakhine state in a series of speeches. Suu Kyi has inexplicably shouldered the brunt of international commendation over the Rakhine crisis, never diverting attention to the real culprits, the military and police.
She has also recoiled from principled leadership by declining to stop the toxic explosion of racist, ultra-nationalist and xenophobic hate speech directed at the minority Rohingya over social media, including materials disseminated her own office’s Facebook page.
The year started with a gunshot that set the tone for an annus horribilis in the assassination of respected lawyer Ko Ni, architect of the NLD’s constitutional reform efforts. Ko Ni was shot in the head at Yangon Airport while he was holding his grandson. The military-linked suspect was last seen in the capital Naypyidaw.
Suu Kyi did not attend Ko Ni’s funeral or visit his family in downtown Yangon in the days after the killing, a widely criticized snub which put the already rattled Muslim community in the city on edge. Ko Ni was a Muslim but not a prominent activist for Rohingya rights and was seen more as a principled advocate for constitutional and political reforms.
The year was marked by a growing bunker mentality by an elected administration with an overwhelming mandate to pursue good and transparent governance. The state counsellor exerted tight control over the parliament and her party, with her NLD MP’s effectively muzzled from engaging with Myanmar civil society groups and only under strict conditions with certain international interlocutors.
The domestic and foreign media were intimidated more in 2017 than at any point in the country’s transition, with several journalists pressured and jailed for their critical news coverage. Many of the cases against local journalists elicited little condemnation or concern from senior government officials, illustrating the still oppressive system put in place by the military and a badly fractured and politicized legal system.
There was also a mounting and generally unhealthy antagonism between the international media and government, with the NLD conducting unprofessional propaganda-style press relations that sneered at reports of atrocities, jeered allegations as ‘fake news’, and snorted at talks of sanctions, investigations and international pressure.
The Director General of the State Counsellor’s Office, Zaw Htay, continued his incendiary invective against international criticism over the Rakhine crisis. New restrictions on journalist visas for foreigners were instituted, with oversight not just from the Ministry of Information but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is controlled by Suu Kyi.
Despite the indisputable horror show unfolding in Cox’s Bazaar, much of the international commentary focused on Suu Kyi’s culpability in the ethnic cleansing. But calls for her to be stripped of the Nobel Peace Prize she won as a champion of non-violent democratic struggle were self-indulgent distractions from the real culprits of the mass violence: Myanmar’s security forces.
During Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar, campaigners and commentators insisted he use the word ‘Rohingya’ and judged his visit on his failure to do so. It was yet another episode of the West’s obsession with the Rohingya that distracted from a host of other government shortcomings and the glaring impunity of the military, known as the Tatmadaw.
That impunity was on full display in conflict zones in Kachin and Shan states as military attacks on ethnic insurgents and thousands of internally displaced persons mounted at year’s end. The Tatmadaw has also charged in late year with killing four members of the Karenni Army, the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), a group that had been negotiating for inclusion in a national peace agreement.
Fighting also extended to the borderlands of Rakhine and Chin states by the Arakan Army, an insurgent group which has killed more Tatmadaw soldiers than the ARSA attacks of late August that ignited the Tatmadaw’s rampage of rape and pillage, and threatens to make an already incendiary security situation on the western border even more explosive.
The military’s blockage for over a year of humanitarian assistance to displaced communities in conflict zones of the north has deepened the region’s civilian suffering. These armed conflicts and the government’s restrictions on humanitarian aid should be factored into any analysis of the government’s performance, not just its actions and responses in Rakhine state.
While the military is clearly the main culprit for the death, deprivation and destruction, the silent bystander civilian government has so far shouldered nearly all the blame. Suu Kyi’s administration’s purported priority of a nationwide peace process now appears more elusive than at any time since it began under quasi-civilian rule in 2011.
While a huge national conference was held in May, talks between eight groups who signed a partial Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 have sputtered to a halt, while negotiations for other armed groups to sign have floundered in an environment of government inaction and military intransigence.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed organization, stepped into the peace vacuum by consolidating several northern groups into a new negotiating bloc, making the whole process even more vexed than it already was.
Myanmar’s oldest armed group, the Karen National Union (KNU), issued a statement in November which urged the government to resume the peace process while decrying its mishandling of the Rakhine crisis, which the group said evoked memories of decades of war and abuses in their eastern corner of the country.
But for many in the international community, all these issues are secondary to the horrors of Rakhine state. To be sure, no claims that the international media and others have misread the dynamics of the Rakhine situation will exonerate the government’s inexplicably inept handling of the crisis, its arrogant denials of the gravity of the humanitarian and human rights nightmare of the Rohingya, and the ultimate responsibility of the security forces for ethnic cleansing.
It is this mix of the ruthless and incompetent that has evinced new sanctions on Myanmar, measures that potentially endanger the country’s broad democratic transition.
In recent weeks, the United States sanctioned the now disgraced former Tatmadaw Western Commander Major General Maung Maung Soe, as one of 39 other individuals and entities around the world under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Maung Maung Soe is the only individual from Myanmar listed, although the US Treasury Department is looking at other targets for US pressure over the Rakhine crisis.
There are also calls for a United Nations (UN) arms embargo, which may be more symbolic than substantive given that Myanmar domestically manufactures many of the weapons used in counterinsurgency operations and sources much of its external weapons systems from China, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan and reportedly Israel – all states unlikely to support or adhere to any punitive embargo.
Myanmar’s relations with the UN and international humanitarian groups who have long worked in the war-wracked and impoverished country hit a new nadir in 2017.
Security forces drove out almost every aid group from conflict areas in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district and only desultorily granted access to the steadfastly neutral International Committee for Red Cross. ICRC has operated in an almost lunar landscape of de-population where a senior ICRC official recently observed “life has stopped” for those left in the area.
The government compounded this disdain for foreign humanitarian actors by charging them with complicity in support of ARSA militants, an affront to their professional impartiality and a sop to Rakhine nationalist rhetoric that routinely falsely alleges that international aid workers only assist Muslim communities.
This is despite the dire need for international support to move Rakhine state into a better future, and regardless of the NLD’s announcement of a Rakhine public-private partnership for development, which is little more than a fantasy.
The government is now effectively living in a parallel reality with its plans to safely return Rohingya refugees as part of a repatriation deal with Bangladesh and initiation of implementation committees for the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission’s reconciliation recommendations.
Yet the conditions for refugee returns in the real world simply do not exist in areas brimming with troops that perpetrated the initial abuses that forced the Rohingya to flee.
Whether Suu Kyi’s relative silence over the last year is a resolute determination to maintain forward momentum despite criticism which she may view as mendaciously motivated, or blithe indifference to the gathering storm of global condemnation, or genuine concern of a military coup d’etat if she publicly confronts the armed forces, mostly swirls in the realm of speculation without clarifications from the de facto national leader.
It’s a phenomenon an American academic based in Yangon recently coined as ‘Suu-ology.’ But the damage done to Myanmar’s international standing may be irreversible, especially if the government fails to demonstrate some measure of contrition and commitment to accountability and address the virulent xenophobic rhetoric driven by communal fears that thrive in an environment of weak leadership.
The Rakhine crisis may have dominated 2017, but to solve Myanmar’s many problems they must be examined in their complex entirety. That process won’t begin until senior political and military leaders admit they have serious problems and take concrete steps to address them rather than indulge in competitive and often implausible denials.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst
Editor’s note: This version corrects the number of individuals and entities targeted by the US for links to the Rakhine humanitarian crisis. Only one general and no other entities have been sanctioned to date.