In his first visit to Myanmar, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met the two most important figures in the country: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi praised Tillerson for being open-minded, while the commander-in-chief said in a press release that he had explained the “real situation” in Rakhine State to America’s top envoy.
The stated purpose of Tillerson’s visit was to discuss the issue in Rakhine State and also to cover Myanmar’s democratic transition, which faces challenges and uncertainty, as well as the ethnic conflict in Northern Myanmar. Tillerson said the United States would consider individual sanctions against security personnel found to be responsible for human rights abuses against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine State.
The visit indicated that the US is not keen to take strong measures against Myanmar over the plight of Rohingya refugees and allegations of human rights violations. The secretary of state said he would not advise “broad-based economic sanctions” against the entire country, and this indeed is welcome news to the government and military leaders.
But Tillerson also said, “If we have credible information that we believe to be very reliable that certain individuals were responsible for certain acts that we find unacceptable, then targeted sanctions on individuals very well may be appropriate.” Interestingly, when addressing the Rakhine issue the US envoy avoided using the term “Rohingya” apparently so as not to offend the hosts.
It is safe to say that the US has reliable information about what has happened since August 25 in northern Rakhine State and wants to limit any diplomatic action to individuals in the armed forces. As for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, it is clear she has no control over the military and she has reportedly opposed a proposal to declare a state of emergency in Rakhine State.
Tillerson rightly condemned the initial terrorist attacks that triggered the current crisis. “We do condemn the August 25th attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Myanmar’s security forces that initiated this violence and reiterate that there is zero tolerance for such attacks. We express our condolences at the loss of the lives among the Myanmar security forces resulting from this unprovoked attack,” he said.
At the same time, he called for a credible investigation into human rights abuses against Muslim villagers that were allegedly committed by Myanmar’s security forces. In his meeting with Tillerson, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing carefully stated that the military would follow the government’s policy on Rakhine State.
Regarding the Rakhine issue and the return of refugees from Bangladesh, the general said, “The government will carry out such issues and the Tatmadaw will help the government.”
But in reality there is fear that there is a deep and growing division and mistrust between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the top army generals. Some generals believe that she is in favor of Western sanctions and the army sees her as an agent of sabotage according to a recent article in the Bangkok Post.
Yet, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has little control over the armed forces. The charges by some international activists about the government and Suu Kyi’s involvement in the crackdown on the Rohingya are groundless. She is in fact opposed to martial law and putting Rakhine under military control.
However, some foreign critics see her as defending the army and covering up the atrocities in northern Rakhine State during the army operations in late August and early September in response to the terrorist attacks.
What many observers fear is that irreparable damage has been done to the relations between the top army leaders and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the generals suspect she is scheming to have sanctions reimposed against them specifically. She will have to walk a tightrope as in the past. The army remains the most powerful force in the country and relations between Suu Kyi and the military leadership are likely to remain fragile.