By Alaric Moras
“I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party. And if that’s not a politician then I don’t know what is,” said Aung San Suu Kyi in an interview in 2013.
Three years later, Ms. Suu Kyi’s clearly drawn lines between politics and humanitarian aid have found expression in the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which controls almost 58% of the Burmese Parliament’s lower house. Having led Myanmar to its current partial democracy, the NLD took office on April 1st, 2016, inheriting a country with high budget deficits and rampant corruption. However, the NLD has only just begun rolling out its plans for an ethnic community commonly regarded as the most persecuted on Earth: the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar.
Victimised by the Buddhist majority for decades, the Rohingyas began rioting in the Rakhine state in 2012. The violence displaced 90,000 people and killed more than 160. Today, the Rohingyas remained unrecognized as an ethnic minority within Myanmar; officials of the previous and current governments still refer to them as “Bengali immigrants.” The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) qualified the systematic campaign by the previous government as genocide. Many Rohingya have expressed hopes that the NLD will address the racism forcing them to leave their country in droves.
However, Ms. Suu Kyi’s silence over the Rohingya issue is deafening. The 70 year old Peace Laureate endured almost 15 years of house arrest under Myanmar’s previous military junta and has long been held as beacon of hope for democracy and human rights, both within Myanmar and around the world. But Ms. Suu Kyi’s selective mutism is unsurprising. On June 16th 2012, in her long overdue Nobel Lecture, she voiced her desire for “democracy and human rights beyond national borders.” While she spoke, thousands of Rohingyas in Myanmar were fleeing riots, conflict and violence. In May, in an interview with Reporter Mishal Housain of the BBC, the State Counsellor was heard muttering, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”
As of August 24th 2016, the NLD government has constituted an Advisory Commission to address the “complex and delicate issues in the Rakhine state.” Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will chair the nine member panel. However, with two of the other members having already denied the existence, identity and history of the Rohingya people, Mr. Annan’s mandate will be a demanding one. No Rohingya representative has been appointed to the Advisory Commission.
In June, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said that the number of Rohingya refugees in camps in Rakhine had fallen from 145,000 to 120,000. As discrimination against them continues and their numbers fall, the need for Ms. Suu Kyi to speak up increases.
However, the NLD government’s ability to make impactful changes in this capacity is limited given the sweeping powers of the Ministry of Home Affairs, a profile that still remains with the military. In fact, according to Irrawaddy, under the junta-drafted constitution of 2008, 25% of representatives of the House must be military appointees. The Ministry of Home Affairs oversees local governance in rural and urban areas, with its broad powers reaching land management, media scrutiny, registration of non-governmental and community organisations and the documentation of the internal migration of people.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s current response seems to be a convoluted game of realpolitik. Regardless of her unwillingness to estrange the dominant Buddhist minority that has long espoused her fight for democracy and her inability to sway the powerful Burmese military in favour of the Rohingyas, the State Counsellor must still take action. Upon receiving the Annan report, not due until August 2017, Ms. Suu Kyi will be able to displace international pressure to enforce the recommendations (not least by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis, among others) on the military junta while retaining popularity among the Buddhist majority.
This balancing act between the junta, the Buddhist majority and the international humanitarian community will soon become a key feature of the NLD’s mandate in Myanmar. And until the system of partial democracy gives way to complete democracy, constitutional amendments designed to take power away from the junta cannot take place. As they control 25% of the House, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Meanwhile, it is now well-known that formal international intervention for the Rohingyas will only come after Ms. Suu Kyi raises her voice for their cause. To do so, she must mend ties with the military, whose support remains vital so long as they control the Ministry of Home Affairs. Yet Ms. Suu Kyi has made this increasingly difficult – first, by creating and elevating herself to the position of State Counsellor. This particular antic, designed to skirt around the junta’s demand that she does not assume the presidency herself, has infuriated the military. She has also enraged them by filling the cabinet with many erstwhile junta members, who were ousted for supporting her.
As long as an overwhelming majority of the nation supports discrimination against the Rohingyas, state intervention seems unlikely. A year ago, Ms. Suu Kyi upbraided the junta-led government for not doing enough to protect minority rights. Now that she leads the government, it remains to be seen whether she will fail to do the same.