It “could have been handled better” must be the most anaemic, dismissive public comment by a national leader concerning one of the world’s most disastrous contemporary tragedies. Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor (virtual prime minister) of Myanmar and the civilian leader of that state, on an official visit to Vietnam, publicly dismissed the atrocities committed by Myanmese troops on this hapless, stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, some 700,000 of whom fled into Bangladesh and an estimated 10,000 died in what may be described as a pogrom. Mass rape and the execution of children have been documented.
This from the Nobel laureate who has been held up in the Western world as the icon of democracy as she struggled against a military regime while under house arrest for some 15 years.
It is true, as she has said, that she did not want to be regarded as a democratic icon, but rather as a politician trying to move her country along an unknown path to a form of democratic state. But she has basked in this positive international spotlight and received numerous international awards for her courage and commitment to democracy.
But she has, thus far, dismissed what the United States and the United Nations have called ethnic cleansing, and what some have regarded as a form of genocide. Her inattention and even misleading public statements concerning the plight of the Rohingya have destroyed her international reputation, diminished foreign Western investment and tourism, and cast the reputation of her country into a deep morass from which escape may be long and arduous.
Compounding this horrific flight from democratic norms has been her insistence that two Burmese Reuters journalists have been properly tried and convicted for seven years in jail for reporting on one terrible incident involving military actions against the Rohingya.
Claiming they were properly convicted under a colonial-era official secrets act, she has showed that all her previous hortatory exhortations to adhere to the “rule of law” were essentially meaningless. One official indicated that the two reporters were set up by the military through planted material. The courts are not independent.
Whatever her private views of the Rohingya – and her support of their state repression is widely supported by the majority Buddhist population – Suu Kyi must try to maintain a delicate balance between her essentially civilian legislature and the military, which controls all state avenues of coercion and administration below the cabinet level.
If she is too critical of the military, then there are legal means under the constitution for the military to declare martial law and enact a reversion to even stricter control. The extensive reforms and liberalisation that have taken place under the previous administration of president Thein Sein were both needed and broadly welcomed internally and externally, but the defining issue of the state in the West is now the tragic treatment of the Rohingya, not the progress that had been made under the previous administration.
The US and other Western states have strongly and rightly denounced the government for its actions and attitudes. This has angered the government, or at least those elements controlled by the military and the population, which is avowedly anti-Muslim in general and which regards the Rohingya as Bengalis who should not be in the country, while dampening relations with the US.
Into this breach of confidence have stepped the Chinese, who have supported the military’s version of events and refused to criticise their actions, perhaps because they fear unrest among the Muslim Uygur in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
The military have claimed their response was to a security threat launched by a few ill-armed Muslim insurgents. The response by the government was inappropriate and completely out of proportion to the perceived problem. But the atrocities may well incite more coordinated and lethal external Muslim reactions. A couple of decades ago, Osama bin Laden complained about repression of Muslims in Myanmar.
There is no easy solution to this problem, given public sentiment in Myanmar. The Rohingya before the present debacle existed in the most constrained and controlled environment, without the basic elements of a reasonable existence. Even if they were to return, conditions would be abominable.
We may be blamed for simple condemnation and no effective action, but Myanmar’s military are the essential culprits and, alas, Aung San Suu Kyi is an unindicted co-conspirator.