The latest wave of violence in Myanmar between the state military and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has driven more than 600,000 people out of their homes to seek refuge in Bangladesh. After extensive discussions, officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a deal over the repatriation of those who wish to return to Rakhine State. But given the complex history of ethnic struggles in Myanmar, the refugees will need more than an ambiguous agreement to convince them to go back.
The plight of the Rohingyas, the Muslim minority group known to the Burmese as the Bengalis, has drawn much of the world’s attention. But not as much as their state counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The international community has criticized and condemned Aung San, threatening to revoke—or actually revoking—her various titles. The only thing they have not done is empowered her to bring about peaceful resolution to the conflict.
From state representatives to university secretary-generals, the world expects Aung San to be the voice of the persecuted people in the Rakhine state. But these expectations are unrealistic. These critics are holding her up to the standards of a political activist, not a politician.
Aung San is no longer a political prisoner fighting against the military. She is a prisoner of politics, constrained by the process of transition and political structures. In Myanmar’s fragile, quasi-democracy, the military still retains considerable power. The process of diffusing this power to the rest of the newly elected government must take place gradually. Accelerating it could bring about instability and give the military reason to withdraw back to an authoritarian regime. Therefore, Aung San’s silence should not be misunderstood as callousness, but accepted as careful calculation. She cannot afford outright disapproval of the military because they are no longer her antagonists. Instead, she needs to convince them to be her allies.
Neither can Aung San and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), afford to alienate her supporters. She has always sought to achieve national reconciliation, emphasizing the promotion of “inter-communal religious harmony” in Myanmar. However, the Burmese population, comprising 135 officially recognized ethnic groups—90% of which are Buddhist—is far from homogenous. To represent them, Aung San must strike a delicate balance, one that she is still in the process of finding.
Despite her silence, Aung San has demonstrated sympathy through her actions. Her request for an Advisory Commission, chaired by Kofi Annan, was a massive step in acknowledging the political, socio-economic, and humanitarian challenges in the Rakhine State. In response to backlash, she visited the Rakhine region in November. Now, the deal with Bangladesh hints that Aung San is, in fact, committed to finding a resolution. Of course, she could send an even stronger signal by guaranteeing citizenship rights for the returned refugees.
States and non-governmental organizations should credit these efforts, even as they acknowledge their shortcomings. Though incomplete, these actions are a starting point for finding a collaborative solution. As the International Crisis Group warns, continued hard-lined criticism and unconstructive engagement would not only be ineffective, but also counterproductive.
First, the message would likely be lost on the military and the political elite. Myanmar has proven to be largely impervious to external judgement. Global norms are effective in constraining governments only if these norms are recognized. But Myanmar’s historical pariah status has prevented them from being consistently socialized and integrated into the “international society.” The state cares more about its tangible national interests—including regime stability—than abstract global norms.
Moreover, hard-line policies, such as sanctions, might play right into the hands of anti-Western, nationalist sentiments. It sends the message that the West is keen to punish rather than help Myanmar progress towards a resolution of its ethnic conflicts. It could also undermine the NLD’s efforts to build harmony through economic development by limiting access to resources.
All this is not to say that Aung San’s present efforts are adequate and certainly not to justify the violence that is happening in the Rakhine State. But beyond sitting back and pointing fingers, the international community has the ability to take concrete steps to help alleviate the violence. This includes supporting Myanmar in the implementation of the Annan commission’s recommendations or expediting the safe repatriation of refugees.
And instead of lamenting Aung San’s “fall from grace,” Western leaders and journalists should shift the spotlight to the military leaders and ARSA. This means holding accountable those who are actually perpetuating the violence, rather than singling out a leader trying to hold her country’s fragments together.