Aung San Suu Kyi steps off a military helicopter during her tour of Rakhine state earlier this month.
Aung San Suu Kyi steps off a military helicopter during her tour of Rakhine state earlier this month.

Will Suu Kyi overcome the challenges?

opinion November 11, 2017 01:00

By Htun Aung Gyaw
Special to The Nation

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Caught between allegations of genocide from abroad and claims she’s a traitor to Buddhism at home, The Lady’s short reign is in deep crisis  



Nearly two years after winning a landslide election victory, Myanmar’s de facto leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is sandwiched between the military and Buddhist nationalism on one hand and a Muslim insurrection and international pressure on the other. 

Western democracies need to consider whether they want democratic change in Myanmar or a resurrection of military rule. A failure to comprehend the true complexity of the Rohingya issue invites the latter option.

In addition, ongoing peace talks between armed ethnic groups and Suu Kyi’s government are unlikely to end in agreement. Successful handling of Myanmar’s deep-seated problems will depend on her ability, understanding and strategy, as well support from Western democracies.   

Her main challenge is to change the 2008 constitution, which was drafted by the military for over a decade. The result was a national supreme law that is neither democratic nor federal but instead ensures the military retains a powerful grip on government and business opportunities.

Buddhism and the USDP

Another big challenge she faces is the Buddhist-nationalist sentiment being harnessed by the USDP. The junta-founded opposition party is bidding to win the 2020 election. One prominent USDP supporter is extremist monk Wirathu, a leader of the Buddhist-nationalist Ma Ba Tha group who was dubbed the “Face of Buddhist Terror” by Time magazine. 

The resurgence of Buddhist nationalism is targeting Muslims.

Prominent Muslim human rights lawyer Ko Ni was assassinated in broad daylight at Yangon Airport in January. The gunman was hired by an ex-army major who had earlier donated 500,000 kyats to Ma Ba Tha.

Suu Kyi is an idealist, not a pragmatist. She believed that if she allowed the ex-military officers to join her government, the army leaders would compromise and eventually agree to constitutional change. 

But even as she preaches national reconciliation and collaborates with the generals, they have no intention of changing the constitution and are instead mobilising against her in the political arena. 

High-ranking army officers who retired to enter politics joined the USDP, ignoring other parties despite their claims of no prior political affiliations. They were rewarded for their loyalty with posts on the central committee.

Ma Ba Tha meanwhile was banned by the Buddhist Supreme council but the government dares not take action against the movement.

Former UN chief Kofi Anan and his advisory committee presented a solution for the crisis in Rakhine state to President Htin Kyaw on August 23. Titled “Towards a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine”, the report raised hopes of a resolution to the crisis.  

But two days later, on August 25, 30 police outposts in Rakhine state were attacked by the militants calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). More than 40,000 Rakhine and Hindu villagers fled to the state capital of Sittwe. The ARSA attack was well planned and executed and succeeded in killing innocent Rakhine and non-Muslims, including some 100 Hindu villagers whose bodies were later found in a mass grave.  

The timing of ARSA’s attack was no coincidence. ARSA does not want a peaceful solution, but rather a separate Muslim state. The Burmese army responded with force, killing over 300 ARSA militants who were armed with little more than knives and homemade explosives. 

That brought allegations of slaughter from the Rohingya, while Rakhines and Hindus said they had suffered slaughter at the hands of the Rohingya militants. Both claims could be true. 

The Burmese army said ARSA members torched Rohingya villages and forced the residents to leave. The Rohingya have said it was the army who burnt their villages. Both these claims could also be true. The result is that more than 600,000 Rohingya have poured into Bangladeshi refugee camps. 

The Myanmar government has barred media from entering the crisis area, which means that even if ARSA militants torched the villages, there is no proof. 

Yet there is little doubt about ARSA’s broad strategy. Outgunned and outmanned, they conducted a lightning strike, then spread rumours that any Rohingya who stayed in their village would be slaughtered by the Burmese army. The exodus garnered world attention and ARSA achieved its goal of having the Rohingya recognised as an oppressed people. And it is Suu Kyi who is being blamed for the crisis, not the Burmese army.

In the international arena she faces accusations of genocide, while at home Buddhist nationalists accuse her of being “pro-Muslim”. 

Once the darling of the West, Suu Kyi is now being condemned for not speaking out about the suffering of the Rohingya. Her beloved university Oxford recently removed her portrait and with it her status as a respected scholar. 

In contrast, Ma Ba Tha and the USDP have slammed her for not calling the Rohingya “Bengali”. They hailed former president Thein Sein as a true nationalist and Buddhist for stating there were no Rohingya in Myanmar, only Bengalis. Suu Kyi’s government prefers the term “Muslims from Rakhine state” so as to avoid criticism from the West.

Last week, crowds rallied in Yangon to support the crackdown in Rakhine, blaming President Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi for not supporting the military. A commander and MP in Thein Sein’s government told the crowd that anyone who didn’t support the army was a rebel. He also called Rohingya supporters “birds”, deliberately linking them with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy whose symbol is a peacock.

Buddhist monks and students have been at the forefront of every campaign against military regimes in Myanmar.  In 1988, 1990 and 2007 monks demonstrated against military rule and many were tortured and imprisoned. The military have now turned the tables by favouring and promoting a nationalist brand of Buddhism. the result has been a rash of anti-Muslim riots across the country. Once anti-military monks are now supported by the military-backed USDP.  But politically active monks who participated in the 2007 Saffron Revolution have remained loyal to Suu Kyi.

Democratisation undermined 

The Lady is now being squeezed between the Buddhist nationalists backed by the military party on one hand and the Rohingya crisis and Western pressure on the other.  Her strategy for democratisation has been undermined tremendously. Her efforts for reconciliation with the army are not working and once her alliance with ethnic political parties is breaking down because they feel they have been ignored. As a result a resolution to conflicts with armed ethnic groups is no closer. 

To overcome the crisis in her rule, she needs to reconsider her one-sided national reconciliation strategy and trust old allies who remain loyal to her.  She needs to speak out about what is wrong in the country whether it upsets the military or not. If she has the courage to speak out for the people, she will regain the trust of the West and be in a better position to change a military-drafted   constitution that is currently all-too dominant.

Htun Aung Gyaw is former chairman of the All Burma Students Democratic Front.