If Suu Kyi can offer no hope to the Rohingya, cutting off the cash flow to Myanmar may work
Manjit Bhatia says Aung San Suu Kyi has buried her head in the sand on the issue, when what is needed is fewer platitudes and harsh sanctions from leading powers to make Myanmar’s elite feel the pain
Aung San Suu Kyi is a flop, while Myanmar, formerly Burma, lurches towards becoming a failed state. Since her National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s landslide 2015 election win, which propelled her to the specially created post of state counsellor – or de facto head of government – she has talked the talk but can’t seem to walk it.
On the explosive Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi buries her head in the sand. It’s painfully obvious the Muslim Rohingya continue to be brutalised by Buddhist fundamentalists and terrorised by Myanmese soldiers, while the rest of the world, including the UN, sits on its hands. Right under her nose lies the possible making of a Myanmese slaughterhouse that, if left unchecked, could well become Southeast Asia’s Aleppo.
For all her promise to bring democracy and civility to the country after decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar, a member of Asean, has regressed into ultra-right-wing xenophobic savagery.
At the UN General Assembly in September, Suu Kyi pledged to uphold minority rights in Myanmar. But it was a pledge without commitment. She mentioned the western Rakhine state, home to the Rohingyas, but refused to call the persecuted group by name.
Watch: Aung San Suu Kyi addresses troubles in Rakhine at the UN
Whether the Rohingya are struggling for “genuine”, ethnically defined official status in Buddhist-majority Rakhine state or they are a “political construction” dating back to Myanmar’s ninth century Arakan state, their relentless mistreatment violates all 21st-century ideas and sensibilities about human values.
In part, Suu Kyi finds herself in a virtual no-man’s land over finding solutions for the Muslim Rohingya. It’s a situation that could well see, as The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last January, “a beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner presiding over 21st century concentration camps”.
Suu Kyi’s vacillation is partly due to a lack of spine, in spite of her many promises during her long periods of house arrest to return Myanmar to democracy and modern civilisation. Her growing cageyness also reflects the near-absolute control exerted by the country’s military, which ruled from 1962 to 2011.
It’s hard to reconcile Suu Kyi’s faith in “compromise” or “national reconciliation” via economic development and building trust between Buddhists and the Rohingya, when she refuses to mention the latter by name.
So far Suu Kyi hasn’t clarified what that “compromise” might be. Trust is important but may be difficult to achieve when systematic discrimination, looting, rape and mass murder continue, and entire Rohingya villages are razed to the ground, to which her government turns a blind eye.
The only compromise is Suu Kyi ensuring her legitimacy with Rakhine Buddhists and state officials, and the NLD, the majority of whom oppose the Rohingya. Without them, she cuts a paltry figure as a political leader with an elitist history.
The Nobel committee should revoke her Peace Prize. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations should end its timidity and hypocrisy, and halt state-backed investments in Myanmar. The UN, and especially the United States, must abandon their self-righteous positions and reimpose sanctions, as long as the human rights abuses and blood-letting persist.
China, too, must cut off all investment and aid. Sanctions can work over time, as South Africa under apartheid found out in 1994, and Islamic-cleric-run Iran more recently. Eventually, Myanmar’s economic and political elite will also feel the pain of sanctions.
It’s stunning how frequently political pundits claim the Rohingya problem can’t be resolved in a short time. What’s needed isn’t more edifying excuses but conviction and action, to stop the heinous behaviour and find permanent solutions.
The danger not only for Myanmar but also South and Southeast Asia is that extremist, militant foreign elements fleeing the conflict-ridden Middle East will quickly exploit the politico-ideological vacuum created by domestic angst, disillusionment, and vicious bigotry. That’s the road to Myanmar’s Aleppo.
Manjit Bhatia is an Australian research scholar who specialises in the economics and politics of Asia and international political economy. He is also research director of AsiaRisk, an economic and political risk consultancy