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Myanmar: Relentless Regress 
  • State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi
    State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi
After the Arakan Army (AA) launched raids on police outposts in Buthidaung township in the Rakhine State, leaving 13 policemen dead and nine injured on January 4, 2019, the Myanmar Army has vowed to crush the rebels. Escalating clashes between Government and rebel forces have brought a new cycle of distress migration to the region, racked by violence against and displacement of Rohingya Muslims since August 2017. 

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, once lionised by western countries, human rights organisations and even within Myanmar, finds her image increasingly tarnished. Her iconic stature, built over 15 years of house arrest and determined opposition to Army rule, has been entirely diminished by her patent failure to use her determination to end the continuing massacres, human rights violations and turmoil in her country.  

Her silence and dissimulation has already cost her many honours. The Canadian Parliament formally stripped her of her honorary Canadian citizenship. Amnesty International has taken away its highest honour- Ambassador of Conscience Award – given to her in 2009. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has invalidated the prestigious Elie Wiesel Award, presented to her in 2012. In Iran she and commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing were put on trial during a 'popular court' in Tehran and sentenced to 25 and 15 years behind bars. The Committee to Protect Journalists in its Press Oppressors awards has named her among the Biggest Backsliders in Press Freedom. The largest South Korean human rights groups had decided to take away the 2004 Gwangju prize awarded, while Councillors in the City of London voted to revoke her Honorary Freedom of the City of London.

The August 2017 Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) cracked down on Muslim Rohingyas after an attack on police posts and an army station. The attack was attributed to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) reportedly led by Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi, a Rohingya born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Prior to 2017 Rohingya Muslims had faced widespread persecution, with many herded into camps, their access to education and health care restricted. Most had been stripped of their citizenship. 

The Buddhists of Rakhine state had also been involved in a confrontation with the Army, but had been relatively quiescent till this January 2019 attack. Myanmar blames Bangladesh for providing bases to both ARSA and AA, a charge Dhaka vehemently denied. 

Since August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims had fled to neighboring Bangladesh following executions, rapes and village burnings by the Tatmadaw in the north of Rakhine State. International human rights groups have extensively documented the organized bloodshed by the Army, in which the UN estimates at least 10,000 people were killed. 

Suu Kyi had already hinted at her approach to the plight of the Rohingyas in a 2013 interview, claiming that Buddhists lived in fear of “global Muslim power.” Her government routinely denies atrocities, defends military actions, and dismisses critical media reports as “fake news”. Myanmar continues to deny access to and cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in 2015 in a landslide victory on a platform of democratic reform and ending the long running civil war in the country. 

In the context of the Rohingya situation some observers believe the military is side-lining her, while others claim her silence and inaction manifest an endorsement of military action. Former UN Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein warned that Suu Kyi and the head of the armed forces Gen. Aung Min Hlaing could potentially face genocide charges in the future. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has asked the court to rule on whether it has jurisdiction over the deportations of Rohingyas to Bangladesh, a possible crime against humanity.

Myanmar and Bangladesh had signed an agreement for repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar over a period of two years, with strict formalities for proper identification of those being sent back. The programme was to begin in January 2018, but Suu Kyi has blamed Bangladesh for having stymied the process. Bangladesh is host to over a million Rohingya refugees according to the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. Many have expressed fears of going back and some who did, returned saying the situation in Rakhine remained unchanged. 

On coming to power Suu Kyi had also promised to end the decades-long civil war. The various ethnic groups were called on to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement. Over ten ethnic have so far signed, but only four of these actually had armed forces. The strongest armies, the Kachin Independence Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, United Wa State Army and the Arakan Army, as well as their allies among the ethnic Shans and Kokang, have refused to sign the NCA. China, which is major player in Myanmar, has only told the ethnic groups under its influence that they should avoid fighting close to China’s shared border with Myanmar. 

Domestically Suu Kyi still enjoys broad popular support and according to some senior American officials the US Administration continues to consider her the best bet for democracy in Myanmar. But there is disappointment that expectations of rapid development and economic growth remain unfulfilled. 

With elections due in 2020, and Suu Kyi’s charisma fading, the likely political outcome would be a further entrenchment of military power. The ongoing violence in Myanmar; the recalcitrance of the strongest ethnic armies; the increasingly belligerent tone of the Buddhists; the preoccupation of the USA and major western countries with their own concerns and western Islamophobia, could all work to the Army’s advantage.