By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
8 October 2017
The Rohingya exodus into Bangladesh has now exceeded half a million with approx half of those being children. At this rate, we can expect the entire Rohingya population to be ethnically cleansed by the end of the year. One of the most reported aspects of this crisis in the international media has been the puzzling response of the leader of the country, the long-loved global icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. It would seem we are still finding personalities and personality politics easier to process than the actually important aspects of such a humanitarian catastrophe. But since we are here, let us unpick this riddle. Why is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate so casually presiding over de facto ethnic cleansing in her newly ‘democratic’ country?
To begin with, her initial response has been deafening silence. In a pattern that was already frustrating international observers for months now, Ms Suu Kyi has been trying to extricate herself from the controversy, so that she can play both sides: she would be able to support the Myanmar Army in private, and excuse herself of any responsibility in public on the international stage. That approach had already been wearing thin, and now things have finally come to a head. She has been called out for this cynical politicking, and has been effectively cornered into choosing a side. She chose the side of the Army in a dramatic fashion when she announced on 6th September that the news concerning the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine was ‘fake news helping terrorists’. It’s almost as if we did not count ourselves all the 150,000 refugees, mainly women and children, all frail and hungry, who have arrived in Bangladesh in the last couple of weeks.
A Duty to Speak Out
So why is Ms Suu Kyi choosing to side with the Army as it is carrying out ethnic cleansing against a people she is supposed to represent as a democratically elected leader? The most sympathetic voices would make the point that Ms Suu Kyi’s civilian government does not have authority over internal security matters. The Military establishment who controlled the country prior to its current transition to democracy maintains sovereign authority over that aspect of governance. It is within the de jure purview of the Military to carry out security operations against insurgent groups.
But carrying out security operations against insurgent groups is not the same as raping and killing women and children, burning down civilian villages, or setting up minefields in chokepoints on the way towards the Bangladeshi border and then herding a mass of people towards them. Given the moral authority Aung San Suu Kyi claims to have on account of her previous pro-democracy work, she has the capacity, and the duty, to speak out against such humanitarian abuses. And she now carries with her enough of the people of Myanmar that her voice would have power against the Military establishment.
But Aung San Suu Kyi has not changed. Many people who have known Suu Kyi for some time and have worked with her have come to believe that her decision to provide cover for the army goes much deeper than being a balancing act between of a universalist humanitarian and pragmatic politician. She in fact, like many of the elite in Myanmar, shares many of the beliefs of the military leaders and actually supports their action.
And here the short sightedness is ours entirely. As in the past we believed what we wanted and ignored considerable evidence to the contrary. Just as Tony Blair courted Bashar Al Assad hoping he would be the great reformer of Syria because he was a London trained ophthalmologist - but he ended up being one of the greatest mass murderers of our time. Or Saif Al Qadhafi, who held a PhD from the London School of Economics, as the heir apparent to finally transform Libya from a pariah state to civilised nation - who then threatens genocide on his own people. Or even Kim Jong Un, whose Swiss boarding school education would definitely ensure rapprochement with the West when he returns to rule one of the most closed societies in the world - but is now intimidating us all with nuclear annihilation. In all these cases we falsely held the belief that because someone is western educated, speaks flawless English and has tasted our freedoms he or she will certainly wish to emulate us when they have the reins of power, not realising that they are in fact deeply committed to their own ideology.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the therefore same person she has always been. She remains the pro-democracy leader and visionary she was when she received the Nobel Peace Prize. All that has changed is that now, her bubble has truly burst and we all finally get to find out that her vision for democracy for her country never included the Rohingya. She may not have chosen to cleanse the Rohingya from the country herself, but she doesn’t terribly mind if that were to come to pass.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.