Remarks about Rohingya refugees by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of this week’s ASEAN summit in Singapore have caused a stir in Myanmar.
Delivering the Trump administration’s most high-profile criticism to date of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, Pence said at a press briefing attended by the two that state violence against the group was “without excuse”.
“I’m anxious to hear about the progress that you’re making, holding those accountable who are responsible for the violence that displaced so many hundreds of thousands and created such suffering, including the loss of life,” he said.
Some in Myanmar bristled at the vice president’s remarks, viewing them as patronizing, and took offense at the sight of a foreigner lecturing their leader about an issue their country is grappling with. On the other hand, at least one aspect of his comments was met with amusement here.
The “punch line” for many in Myanmar came when Pence expressed concern about freedom of the press in Myanmar, raising the issue of the arrest of two Reuters journalists last year.
“In America, we believe in our democratic institutions and ideals, including a free and independent press,” Pence said.
Given the fondness of the current occupant of the White House for mocking and insulting journalists—not to mention his condemnation of those who would hold him accountable as “enemies of the people” and their reporting as “fake news”—Pence’s comments are hard to swallow.
People took to Facebook and other social media to drop a line or two on what they thought of the vice president’s comments. Some suggested that rather than Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, his preaching on “democratic institutions and ideals” would best be aimed at his own boss.
Unsurprisingly, they applauded Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for standing up to Pence: “In a way, we can say that we understand our country better than any other country does and I’m sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your country better than anybody else does,” she said. “So, we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening and how we see things panning out.”
However, she was not free from criticism herself. Some were astonished by the directness of her comments; others said she had been undiplomatic. Rather than adopting Pence’s confrontational tone, they said, she should have explained that Myanmar is going through a difficult time, especially with regard to the Rohingya, and asked for greater collaboration from the U.S. to tackle the issue. By failing to do so, some said, she missed an opportunity.
The brief exchange between the leaders could have been very different if Pence had come up with a more positive approach, rather than informing the State Counselor that “I’m anxious to hear about the progress you are making—holding those accountable who are responsible for the violence.’
Instead of waiting to hear on the progress of efforts to facilitate the Rohingya’s voluntary return, the U.S. should collaborate more not only with Myanmar but also with Bangladesh, the UNHCR and the UNDP to help speed the repatriation process, which is experiencing hiccups. Only this approach can make a positive difference.
As for Myanmar’s leadership, caution is required with every step—especially at this time when the international community has very little sympathy for Naypyitaw over the Rohingya issue. As an example of this, one need only look at the last-minute warnings from the UN and rights groups regarding the repatriation process, which came despite the government’s repeated announcements that it is ready to welcome those who return voluntarily.
At the same time, as “we understand our country better than any other country does,” Myanmar should keep searching for ways to facilitate repatriation that are in line with the country’s existing laws. The process must be implemented in tandem with Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission’s other recommendations, which call for a roadmap for the development of the whole of Rakhine State. Successful implementation of those 88 recommendations would probably be the only way for Myanmar to earn international trust on the issue.
This would be more likely to happen if the majority of the international community showed understanding and took a helpful approach toward Myanmar, as some other countries have. For Myanmar itself, it would be wiser to seek more supporters, rather than risk further alienation by resorting to harsh words.