Editor’s Note: Tej Parikh is a global policy journalist. He Tweets @tejparikh90 and his work is archived at The Global Prism, an international affairs platform. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Tej Parikh: If we really want to help the Rohingya, we need to spend less time attacking Aung San Suu Kyi
While she certainly bears some blame, we need to address the underlying political, social and ethnic tensions driving this conflict, writes Parikh
The international community is in an understandable frenzy over the growing Rohingya refugee crisis, which is driving the Muslim minority out of Myanmar in droves. Much of their anger is directed at Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who they accuse of passivity at a time of heightened violence.
Suu Kyi, who has long been heralded as a freedom fighter and who has refused to acknowledge the severity of the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya, certainly bears blame. And her decision to skip this year’s UN General Assembly only adds fuel to the flame.
However, while she is a Nobel Prize winning leader who should be championing human rights, she wields far less political power than most people realize. And if the international community is committed to bringing the violence to an end, they must start to focus on the underlying political, social and ethnic tensions that are driving this conflict.
A history of violence
The latest violent outbreak began on August 25, when a Rohingya rebel group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked police posts in the northern state. In response, the military and Buddhist nationalists launched a brutal crackdown on the Rohingya. Human Rights Watch alleges that the military has burnt entire Rohingya villages to the ground – a claim the military disputes.
To date, the Myanmar government reports 421 have died, and the United Nations says that more than 370,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
This latest escalation builds on long-standing tensions between the country’s Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. Around 1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar and are largely descendants of Muslims who arrived in the country generations before. Successive nationalists leaders have treated the Rohingya as a hindrance to national building.
In effect, they have been cast out of society – denied citizenship, access to public services and restricted in their movement.
And, with the rise of social media, hatred of the Muslim minority has only spread throughout Burmese society. Nationalists have used Facebook to spread Islamophobia and rumors about the Rohingya. This has led to numerous bloody flare-ups between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state, from communal riots in 2012 to the recent atrocities, which include the razing of villages and the mass exodus of Rohingya across the border.
How did we get here?
Mainstream coverage would suggest Suu Kyi is responsible. There is truth in that. After all, when her National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power in April 2016, there was hope the human rights icon would change the Rohingya’s fortunes. Her continued silence over their oppression, which the world rightly condemns her for, has contributed to a vacuum that has been filled by a rebel group organized to violently forward Rohingya rights, ARSA.
That said, while international media and civil society have expended their energies in outrage, it’s unclear what Suu Kyi could really achieve when ethnic tensions are historically so entrenched – beyond perhaps an even greater backlash from the army and Buddhist nationalists.
In fact, hoping for Suu Kyi to act is a waste of valuable time. She has little power to change the situation. The de facto state ruler has no control over Myanmar’s army, also known as the Tatmadaw, and the military-era Constitution, which bars Suu Kyi from actually becoming president, is a major block on her powers.
Despite the NLD’s landslide electoral victory, the army still controls the nation’s entire security and regional apparatus, including the defense, home and border affairs ministries. They also have legal right to 25% of parliamentary seats, giving the military effective veto power on constitutional issues, which require a 75% majority. The commander in chief, Senior Gen. Minh Aung Hlaing, has the ability to declare a state of national emergency and regain power.
Suu Kyi has proven herself unwilling to fracture this fragile power share or alienate herself from her large Buddhist nationalist electoral base with her silence over the crisis.
But there are other actors who can play a role in bringing the refugee crisis to an end.
How to help the Rohingya
First, foreign governments must end support for those who are actually responsible for committing the atrocities – the Tatmadaw. The British, Australian and Israeli governments, to name just a few, have recently trained or provided military equipment for the Myanmar military and must stop doing so. And the recent warm visit of Myanmar’s army commander in chief to Austria and Germany only underscores the warped international discourse on the nation.
Instead, the international community must speak directly to Minh Aung Hlaing and pressure him to begin reconciliation efforts, while continuing to choke off illicit resource exports by the military.
Second, close neighbors and the global community must be open to sharing responsibility to shelter and support the Rohingya refugees, particularly those in Bangladesh – otherwise the death toll will rise and the allure of extremism will only grow. Unfortunately, a junior home minister in India has already called for the deportation of the nation’s estimated 40,000 Rohingya population.
Third, global and regional security initiatives ought to target the financial and weapon support chains to ARSA. This may help to ensure the already weakened group does not engage in further attacks. Otherwise, more hostilities would only play into the hands of the military’s narrative to clampdown on extremists – which they have done indiscriminately against all Rohingya.
Fourth, the international community must help implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, while taking into consideration the inflammatory nature of the conflict. This includes improving humanitarian and journalistic access to the region, without inflaming the complex and volatile nature of the ethnic conflict.
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Suu Kyi has committed to the recommendations of the commission, which were published just before the recent violence ignited. But she needs help collaborating with the army and Rakhine’s politicians to support peace education, reconciliation and economic development.
Of course, the aura of Suu Kyi and the heightened expectations of her are central in the global condemnation. But the world has become distractingly obsessed in broadcasting its criticism – and outlining her fall from grace.
The point is not to exonerate Suu Kyi for her evident shortcomings, but rather to redirect global attention toward where it actually has a chance to make a difference.
The Rohingya don’t want our anger – they want our help.