In February 2016, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) formed a government in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s sprawling new capital, a whole new era of democratic aspirations and popular expectations dawned upon the land of jade. Once shunned by the West as a repressive and hostile country, run like a private monopoly by an apathetic military junta, Myanmar suddenly jumped to the centre of international attention when the country went to its first free and fair polls in almost half a decade in November 2015. With a civilian political party raking up a historic mandate over the longstanding military government, Asia’s ‘last frontier’ had seemingly crossed over to the other side.
But, less than a year hence, not all is well in southeast Asia’s newest democracy.
On 09 October 2016, all hell broke loose when 400 unidentified armed assailants launched a coordinated attack on border security posts in the frontier Townships of Maungdaw and Buthedaung in north-western Rakhine State, killing 9 police officers and injuring several others. The daring and unexpected assault prompted the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) to swoop in to the area in large numbers and initiate a ‘cleansing operation’ to secure ground zero. A total lockdown of the affected area was imposed, and extensive search-and-raid operations were initiated.
But, over the next few weeks, the situation turned from bad to worse when a disturbing stream of reports started flowing in from northern Rakhine: of arbitrary detentions, violent raids, brutal killings, and even rapes. Next came the mass exodus of Rohingyas fleeing out of their homes to cross the dangerous border, either to scurry into camps in Bangladesh’s Teknaf or be pushed back forcibly into Rakhine. It took a full month to eventually get a sense of what was happening in the area. With about 100 dead, 500 arrested, 1500 civilian structures razed to the ground, and at least 27,000 Rohingyas rendered refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh, the situation in northern Rakhine now mirrors a major humanitarian crisis with no resolution in sight.
This time round, the whole world appears to be watching the Rohingya condition more minutely than ever before, thanks to the massive international press junket that Myanmar’s historic democratic transition and its iconic torchbearer, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, have brought along. This unprecedented scrutiny has had its own drastic fallouts. Faced with rampant allegations of systematic violence against Rohingyas, including but not limited to extrajudicial killings, arson, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide, the inchoate government of Myanmar today finds itself nudged to the witness box by a slew of international interest and pressure groups.
Yet, the quality of response, from within and without, remains shockingly tepid.
Why do Myanmar’s new civilian administration and its regional partners continue to belie legitimate expectations of affirmative action on the Rohingyas in the face of widespread indignation and calls to action from across the world?
What really makes Nay Pyi Taw’s obscurantist politics in Rakhine so endearing?
Impasse at Home
Bordering Bangladesh, Rakhine has stayed put on global news feeds and newspaper editorials since the last half a decade now, courtesy of the smouldering conflict between majority Buddhists and stateless minority Rohingya Muslims. The 2012 communal violence, which killed about a 100 people (mostly Rohingyas) and pushed about 100,000 into specialised IDP camps, along with the 2015 refugee ‘boat crisis’ involving trafficked Rohingya refugees abandoned at sea, drew serious but staggered attention to the threatening conditions of what the United Nations (UN) refers to as the ‘most persecuted community in the world’.
But, truth is that the Rohingyas, as a demographic group, have never been accorded any serious agency in the mainstream politics of Myanmar, especially after 1982 when all citizenship rights for the 1 million-strong minority community based in Rakhine State were rolled back. Since then, a perennial sense of fear and annihilation has gripped the near-ghettoed community, made worse by a non-negotiable burden of statelessness. During the junta’s five-decades long iron-handed rule, the Rohingya Muslims have never been anything more than a thorn beside the Burmese state.
However, what is far more catastrophic, perhaps, is that the Rohingya condition continues to hover about as the ultimate Achilles Heel for the Burmese state even in the face of a new democracy, represented at large, by a Nobel peace laureate and renowned pro-democracy activist. Neither has the community in mainstream debates on democracy, nor has it found mention in the renewed internal peace process. In reality, the reason why The Lady’s appointment at the top rung of the current administration seems to have had no bearing on the Rohingyas and their non-existence is a no-brainer, if one has to disaggregate the fundamentals of Myanmar’s new democracy.
In a recent interview with ChannelNews Asia, Suu Kyi, when asked if the Rohingya issue was intractable, stated that it wasn’t only the Muslims “who are worried” in Rakhine, but also the Buddhists who are concerned about their ‘shrinking population by percentage’. Although Suu Kyi wasn’t overstating the very real threat perception of Rakhine’s majority community, her statement only endorsed a visible reality of democratic politics in culturally-conscious and self-determining Myanmar: the majoritarian popularism of Myanmar’s new civilian government.
Firmly grounded in the dominant ethno-cultural grassroots of an anti-Muslim majority, the NLD and The Lady appear to be in no mood for gratuitous minority politics, lest they wish to irk the same electorate, which throttled them to power. This, along with Suu Kyi’s limited popularity in Rakhine State, makes the Rohingya affair trickier than usual for the new administration.
In the same interview, the State Counsellor, on being quizzed about her relationship with the military, argued that there is a need to “negotiate with the military”, and not compromise with it as suggested by many. In bluntly stating so, Suu Kyi only reaffirmed the existence of two distinct loci of administrative power in democratic Myanmar – the civilians and the Generals – which need to remain necessarily engaged in some sort of a diplomatic dialogue for policymaking to take place. For a popularly elected administration, this is not the most easing arrangement.
In such an evidently hierarchical setup, it is not hard to reckon that Suu Kyi risks jeopardising her highly precipitous relationship with the military if she veers away from the traditionalist position on the Rohingyas (that is, rejecting their right to Burmese citizenship) or even actively engages with an issue that has been a total non-starter in Burmese politics. This is more so because the military still occupy a solid 25% of both houses of the national parliament, and retain control over the core portfolios of internal security, defense, and border affairs.
The above exigencies, juxtaposed against the State Counsellor’s perseverant requests for greater understanding on Rakhine, have produced a cyclical institutional rhetoric that hardly makes any sense. Suu Kyi insists that the international community, instead of fuelling fires of speculations through gross exaggerations, must understand the complexity of the situation and cooperate with Nay Pyi Taw to restore normalcy in Rakhine – a perfectly reasonable call. But, the endemic communal split isn’t the only thing that makes the evolving crisis complex. The military’s hard-fisted lockdown of the affected areas, leading to an ‘information black hole’, is precisely what has created a fertile ground for exaggerations to flourish. The State Counsellor appears to be incapacitated to resolve this grave incongruity.
However, the belief in some sections of the international media, that the State Counsellor has done zilch to loosen the knots in Rakhine isn’t consistent with facts. When Suu Kyi appointed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to lead an inquiry commission on Rakhine in August 2016, she threw a dice in the air. While Annan’s stellar reputation is a big advantage for her, his appointment wasn’t received well by local Rakhine Buddhists who disfavor any sort of foreign intervention in the affairs of ‘their’ state. Suu Kyi maintains that this opposition is nothing more than a political agenda to discredit her government. While this might be true, there is no doubt in the fact that the Annan commission weakens Suu Kyi’s already tottering popularity in Rakhine.
However, according to Dr Nehginpao Kipgen, noted scholar on Myanmar and Executive Director of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at OP Global Jindal University (Sonepat, India), the presence of foreign experts in Rakhine could “engender a neutral idea that could be mutually acceptable”.
Clearly, the State Counsellor’s standing in Myanmar’s renewed polity is no duck soup. Gridlocked in attitudinal remains of a certain political past and endemic sensitivities of a hugely self-aware majority, Suu Kyi appears to enjoy very little manoeuvrability when it comes to policymaking on the Rohingya issue, particularly over crisis situations. While being fully aware of the sensitive quality of the matter, she has pointedly towed the time-tested line of denying the universality of the Rohingya condition by labelling the entire situation as an “internal issue” despite her own meek confession that it has been on the UN agenda since 2010.
In this, The Lady’s passivity over the Rohingya condition is upsetting but not befuddling.
ASEAN: A Regional ‘Block’
The ongoing crisis in northern Rakhine has wrested global attention on an unanticipated scale, constantly featuring on international news feeds, analyses, editorials, appeals, and human rights despatches since October 2016. From the United Nations (UN) to the European Union (EU), missives of concern have floated in from various quarters, pleading Nay Pyi Taw for a swift, fair, and transparent inquiry into the drastic accusations. Others like CNN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty have been more categorical in their denunciation of the state’s response to the crisis, which many argue is a reckless, knee-jerk reaction undertaken with the Burmese state’s characteristic disregard for human rights of minorities.
Of all legitimate appeals, the calls for regional action have been the most prominent. Notable was the extraordinary reaction from the Malaysian Prime Minister (PM), Najib Razak, who, beginning early December, started voicing concern for the plight of the Rohingyas in a particularly raucous manner. From joining a pro-Rohingya public rally to hinting at possible ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ inside Myanmar’s borders, PM Razak accomplished what no ASEAN leader had in the past: speak without restraint on an ‘internal matter’ of another member state. The repercussions of the same have, however, been largely non-substantive.
Perhaps as a direct upshot of PM Razak’s brash chorus of dissent, the government of Myanmar convened an informal meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers on December 19 in Yangon to brief the bloc’s members on developments in Rakhine. Labelled as a ‘retreat’ by the Suu Kyi administration, the gathering was an unusual one, as never before had ASEAN countries met to deliberate upon an ‘internal issue’ of a member state. At the end of the meeting, which surprisingly did not witness any vehement display of displeasure by Malaysia, the government of Myanmar decided on two key action points: to grant “necessary humanitarian access” to northern Rakhine, and keep ASEAN updated of developments in the area.
The above outcomes embody the core of the mainstream multilateral narrative on the Rohingya condition: ad-hoc humanitarianism, not political solution-building.
What ASEAN agreed to in Yangon does little to diffuse the crisis or even ensure regional oversight. Neither do we know what sort of humanitarian access Myanmar considers “necessary”, nor can we be completely sure of the veracity of Nay Pyi Taw’s intra-regional depositions on the situation in northern Rakhine, given the impenetrability of ground zero. Moreover, the gathering did not have any form of representation from Bangladesh, the immediate cross-border victim of the crisis.
Quite visibly, the informal Yangon resolution allows the government of Myanmar to wholly reframe the matter as a purely humanitarian issue, rather than one that requires serious political initiative from the new government. In all, the Yangon ‘retreat’ only brings to fore the clear incapacity of ASEAN in neutralising Nay Pyi Taw’s politics of resilience in Rakhine.
But, should ASEAN jump on board to rightfully initiate action on the Rohingya condition? If yes, then is it even postured to do so without hindrance?
Yes, and no.
There is hardly any reason to argue that the Rohingya crisis doesn’t have an impact on the region. In terms of its territorial spread, the crisis is everything that the government of Myanmar wants us to believe it is not (read: a regional issue). Besides the obvious fact that the lockdown and sense of mass insecurity in northern Rakhine is directly propelling huge sections of the minority into neighboring Bangladesh and India, the 2015 refugee crisis at sea revealed the deeply transnational nature of the Rohingya condition. Thus, it is not a regional concern in a merely proverbial way but in all explicitness: more than 70,000 individuals who identify themselves as Rohingyas live as refugees or asylum seekers in the three key neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. A greater concern is the fact that many of them have been trafficked to these countries in sub-human conditions.
But, Rakhine’s regional fallout goes beyond the visible refugee crisis.
The recent protests in Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Pakistan point towards the hugely polarizing nature of the Rohingya condition, which really emanates from a pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment amongst Burmese Buddhists. In addition to a domino effect of the communal split, neighboring states are rightly concerned of extremist overreactions to the crisis, especially in light of disparate claims of a new ‘Rohingya insurgency’ that originates westward in Bangladesh and possibly extends eastwards to the domain of jihadist groups in southeast Asia. Although the claims remain largely speculative, the sizeable Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh and elsewhere, hinged on the narrative of sociopolitical marginalization and disenfranchisement, provides a ready pool of recruits for terror groups to instrumentalize. Myanmar’s regional partners should be worried about this, perhaps more than they are.
However, the truth remains sour.
ASEAN’s established mandate and capacity to intervene in Rakhine is grossly limited. Merely armed with a non-binding ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ and an advisory ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Human Rights’, the bloc cannot butt its head into political issues that are under domestic jurisdictions of member states, courtesy of the non-interference clause in its charter. According to Dr Kipgen, ASEAN was in a similar fix previously on the issue of Suu Kyi’s house arrest, wherein the bloc failed to reach a common consensus despite some countries taking a stand.
The most glaring fissure, however, in ASEAN’s capacity to deal with the Rohingya crisis (and its lateral consequences) is its limited legal mandate/credence on refugee protection and anti-trafficking. Of all in the grouping, only Cambodia and Philippines have ratified the UN Convention on Refugees. In addition, ASEAN’s own (and only) legally binding anti-trafficking instrument, the ‘Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children’, enacted last year, hasn’t even entered into force yet. This is because only three – Cambodia, Singapore, and Thailand – out of the required six member states have ratified it.
This soft, non-binding intercession of ASEAN is the perfect middle ground for Nay Pyi Taw: it allows for continued monopoly over Rakhine while creating a space for nominal humanitarian intervention, which anyway constitutes the bare minimum of ASEAN’s current mandate on the Rohingya condition. The Yangon ‘retreat’ was a succinct manifestation of Suu Kyi’s calculated exercise in treading this convenient mid-ground. The standalone narrative of benevolent humanitarianism accords her the twofold space to internationalize the issue just enough to placate concerned stakeholders and at the same time, avoid taking an affirmative stand on its ethno-political aspect within Myanmar.
For now, ASEAN’s structural inadequacies keeps The Lady in her comfort zone.
The Baggage of the Cult
Over the past few weeks, we have seen a brutish rhetoric of indignation hurled by international pressure groups at Suu Kyi for her ambivalence on the Rohingya condition. But, foreign governments, including ASEAN states, have been relatively more restrained and measured in its criticism.
One could legitimately argue that The Lady’s grand stature and cult of image reflexively makes outsiders impressionable to the pulls of Myanmar’s brand new democracy. Suu Kyi, through her suave diplomacy during the recent South China Sea dispute verdict, earned widespread appreciation from other ASEAN member states. Naturally, her progressive diplomacy has only created a certain rapport between Nay Pyi Taw and other regional governments that had never existed before.
This is precisely the kind of amiability and good faith that regional leaders would like to capitalize on for stronger bilateral relations with democratic Myanmar.
A similar dynamic of positive perceptions applies for the key foreign funders of democratic Myanmar’s renewed ethnic peace process – the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Norway, Finland, Denmark. All of them have only walked the humanitarian line of action on the Rohingya issue, without deploring the detrimental political paralysis in Nay Pyi Taw. While the US and EU have expressed their concerns over the recent allegations (it is hard to ignore the inflammatory evidence), they have avoided calling out the Suu Kyi administration over its traditionalist position on the Rohingyas, despite the glaring persecutory treatment accorded to the community.
No foreign leader, unsurprisingly, would want to bicker with the State Counselor over Rakhine, lest she or he wishes to damage all prospects of reconciliation on other ‘more crucial’ fronts like the ongoing ethnic peace process where foreign governments have been putting in money. By galvanizing political and communal sentiments within Myanmar’s two-tier (civilian-military) decision-making machinery, donor states only risk losing their investments in the country’s wider transformative processes.
Thus, the realist balancing act is meant to keep Suu Kyi as she is ‘supposed to be’: an iconic global figure, set to alter the face of one of southeast Asia’s most resource-rich and strategically-placed countries.
A Dystopian Deadlock
Owing to the widespread belief that political empowerment can wait but economic progress cannot, a host of global entities have been stifled from taking action on the Rohingya issue in the country by their obligation to maintain a functional relationship with the Suu Kyi administration. This includes the UN, which has been accused of not just mere dithering on the matter, but active obfuscation of glaring atrocities, all to maintain a cordial relationship with the civilian government. For a stateless community with no legitimate guarantee of affirmative action, this is perhaps the worst-case situation.
But, Nay Pyi Taw’s insistence that the problem cannot be solved as swiftly as some international groups would like it to be, holds strong ground. What has ultimately festered in Rakhine isn’t a sudden blow of the bat, but rather decades’ worth of political exasperation and communal antagonism emanating from a strong sense of majoritarian ethno-nationalism and minority fear psychosis. This is the kind of collective conditioning that demands meticulous politicking and mediational diplomacy between multiple stakeholder groups – a challenge of epic proportions for anyone who walks the power corridors of Nay Pyi Taw. But that, in itself, cannot offset the obligation to act. At the risk of tearing to shreds the positive dividends of a democratic Myanmar, The Lady cannot afford to do what the Generals had done for decades: absolve responsibility and postpone engagement.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, democracy has been a hard bargain. For the Rohingyas, the trading hasn’t even opened.
This piece was published on 03 January 2007 in South Asia Journal.
The author is grateful to Dr Nehginpao Kipgen, Director of Southeast Asian Studies at OP Jindal Global University (Sonepat, India) for his comments.