News Analysis: Myanmar’s State Counselor on a Dangerous Tightrope

By Moe Myint 14 September 2017

YANGON – China, Russia, India, and a handful of Southeast Asian nations backed Myanmar’s “counter-terrorism” operations in the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 25 Muslim militant attacks on police stations in northern Rakhine State, but the West became more vocal as the sheer scale of the crisis unfolded.

The Myanmar Army says it is hunting down the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which was responsible for the attacks, but refugees at camps in Bangladesh say security forces are killing indiscriminately and even laying landmines to stop them from returning. So far, an estimated 400,000 self-identified Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh.

Starting with Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Laureates have lined up to express their dismay over Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the desperate plight of the refugees. Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama urged her to “reach out to all sections of society” to restore peace and told media that Buddha would have helped the self-identified Rohingya.

Five Nobel Laureates working under the banner of the Nobel Women’s Initiative appealed to their “sister Laureate” to protect the Muslim minority and Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to the State Counselor, saying the price of silence in order to maintain her position is “surely too steep.”

But if she acts on their word, amends the 1982 Citzenship Law and embraces the self-identified Rohingya, the price would not only be a drop in popularity but also a likely return to military rule. International media calling for UN intervention in Rakhine make this scenario more likely. Neglecting the whole picture also does not help.

The Other Side

“How many Rohingya have to die; how many Rohingya women will be raped; how many communities will be razed before you raise your voice in defense of those who have no voice?” wrote the five Nobel Laureates in an open letter to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But they did not give one mention of ARSA’s orchestrated offensive, of reports the group slaughtered more than 60 Muslims who allegedly cooperated with authorities, as well as other non-Muslim civilians.

The focus, too, shied away from the nearly 30,000 internally displaced people in northern Rakhine. ARSA tactics have swollen the death toll, as new recruits wielding sticks and knives were urged to face heavily armed security forces, explaining why official figures suggest the number of suspected militants dead dwarfs that of security force casualties.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, though, has seemingly moved toward peace with the formation of a committee assigned to implementing the recommendations of the final report of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.

View from the United States

Some international diplomats working closely with the Myanmar government have told media about developments in the peace process and long-term solutions sought by the government to reconcile the Muslim and Arakanese communities in Rakhine.

But few of these takes are found in the coverage of world-leading publications.

On Sept. 4, diplomats of the United States, United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia and EU representatives announced they would provide humanitarian assistance for all affected communities in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

On Sept. 8, Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asia in the Bureau of EAP, held a teleconference with AFP, Associated Press, Reuters, CBS and CNN.

During the press briefing, journalists questioned whether the military is responsible for mass killings of civilians, and whether that would mean the return of sanctions for Myanmar.

“I don’t think we have approached the relationship with Burma in terms of leverage.  It is, in fact, a partnership. And as partners, we are looking to help this transition to democracy succeed,” Murphy replied.

US ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel and his team in Yangon have been working with government and military leaders to ensure an undiscriminating humanitarian operation for displaced people and the restoration of stability in Rakhine, said Murphy.

He added that the situation on the ground is too risky for relief workers but aid work is expected to resume soon. A responsible reaction to the attacks on security forces was needed, he stressed.

But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took a stronger tone in a statement on Sept. 12, saying the massive displacement and victimization of people shows that Myanmar security forces are not protecting civilians.

Sympathetic Diplomats

Although many international reports have condemned the State Counselor’s stance, some former diplomats have shown understanding with her position. Priscilla Clapp, who served in Myanmar from 1999-2002, criticized the international narrative on the conflict during an interview with France 24 last week.

“There was indeed a terrorist attack in Rakhine. It came from outside, and was perpetrated by the people in the Rohingya diaspora, living in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, coming in through Bangladesh,” she said.

Clapp explained Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had begun the journey to resolving issues in Rakhine State by establishing the Kofi Annan-led advisory commission, which, she added, was soon followed by the militant attacks.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised Kofi Annan the government would form several committees on Rakhine State and implement his commission’s recommendations, which include granting citizenship, freedom of movement and education.

“She was already working on it and it was disrupted by the latest terrorist attacks,” said Clapp. “She is not calling the entire community and population terrorists. She is refining it to a group of people who are going around with guns, machetes and IEDs.”

“The people who are running and fleeing out into Bangladesh are not only fleeing the response of security forces; they are fleeing their own radical groups,” Clapp said.

Walking a Tightrope

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrote for Buzzfeed News on Sept. 9 that Myanmar is still in the midst of a fluid and fragile political transition. He emphasized a need for commentators to highlight that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the country’s civilian head but not its commander-in-chief and that the military-drafted 2008 Constitution legally covers an army coup if the institution, which controls the home affairs, defense and border ministries, believes order needs to be restored.

Rudd writes the State Counselor is walking a tightrope between “providing a positive way forward for the Rohingya on the one hand, while not providing the military the pretext for ending Myanmar’s fledgling democracy on the other.”

“The consequence of a stumble could be catastrophic for all,” he added.

The situation of the self-identified Rohingya and Myanmar’s other 50 million people will not improve “if we care more about censuring and abandoning the only democratic government the country has had in half a century,” he concluded.

Myanmar has some hardline Buddhist groups and radical elements in the Muslim community. Parties also stoke anti-Muslim sentiment for political purposes, apparent in the lack of collaboration between Rakhine politicians and the Kofi Annan commission.

Furthermore, the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have stated they “can’t accept a single word” of the commission’s recommendations. The USDP and its alliances have been encouraging the National League for Democracy (NLD) to call a National Defense Security Council meeting since militant attacks last October in Maungdaw.

On Sep. 12, 29 political parties released a statement demanding the 1982 Citizenship Law stay intact, and pushing the government to prioritize the relocation of “indigenous” displaced people before the implementation of human rights and ethnic diversity.

It ended on the note that the army needs to protect the Constitution. The statement, together with international pressure, and the stifling role of the army in Myanmar, has created an intensely difficult situation for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But as Rudd wrote, “The way to peace, justice, and human rights will come through democratic rule of law, and not a return to military rule.”