Off to a Shaky Start

By Aung Zaw 30 January 2018

The year has begun – surprise, surprise – in a blur of bad news. What’s really worrying is that the country seems to be sliding deeper into chaos, instability and confusion. People are openly discussing how much longer the government will be able to wield power and keep the country together.

Two weeks ago, authorities arrested prominent Arakanese politician U Aye Maung and author Wai Han Aung for remarks they made at a public lecture expressing support for the ethnic armed group the Arakan Army. The resulting protest ended in violence as police shot seven people dead and wounded 12. Authorities’ handling of the protest hasn’t done anything to improve the government’s already battered image.

Meanwhile, students in Mandalay are doing their bit to contribute to the government’s headaches. A number of them were briefly detained and escorted back to their homes by security officials after demanding an increase in education spending. Undeterred, they vowed to continue the protest, and several students were expelled from their schools.

But the most prominent story of the month was, of course, the spectacular falling out between two old friends, veteran US mediator Bill Richardson and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Richardson, a former diplomat, abruptly resigned from the Advisory Board on Rakhine State after engaging in, by his account, a most undiplomatic exchange of words with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a blunt recollection, the former governor told US media, “She was upset when I said there should be an investigation of the mass-graves issue; that they had to increase their international support for the treatment of the Rohingyas, the terrible refugee crisis. She exploded. She was very unhappy, and it shows that she didn’t want to hear frank advice.”

In 1994, Richardson became the first non-relative allowed to meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during her house arrest. Sure, he may have been speaking the truth, some say, but that hasn’t endeared him to members of the ruling National League for Democracy.

But Richardson didn’t stop there: For good measure, he added that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was “furious” when he brought up the case of the two Reuters reporters arrested on Dec. 12 on suspicion of violating the Official Secrets Act. They are still in detention. As a familiar climate of fear returns to Myanmar, journalists are getting nervous about possible further arrests and a broader crackdown.

“She was very angry with me when I raised [the question of] releasing the journalists, giving them a fair trial,” Richardson added.

All of the other advisory board members remained committed to their task, despite initial rumors that some planned to resign along with Richardson, who accused the panel of being a cheerleading operation for the Myanmar government. Insiders said that a dinner meeting was even more intense, as “the Lady”, now playing the role of “Iron Lady,” firmly stood her ground. That night, an angry Richardson – known for successfully negotiating the release of detained Americans with no less an adversary than North Korea – packed his bags and left, not even bothering to join the board on its visit to Rakhine State.

In his subsequent comments, he did make one concession, however, acknowledging that before any thoughts of new sanctions on Myanmar, it was important for Western governments, the United Nations and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to enter into a new dialogue “to try to help each other, not to keep fighting each other.”

“What we don’t want is to have Aung San Suu Kyi just listen to ASEAN countries, China or Russia. They need engagement with the West. We’re all former friends. She needs to change, and perhaps the West needs to give her another chance and not impose sanctions,” he said.

It seems hard to believe that it has been just a few short years since then-US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in 2015 and, praising the country’s “reform,” lifted sanctions – in a decision some in Myanmar thought premature. Two years later the U.S. is thinking about imposing new sanctions.

Richardson touched on the military, which remains a powerful institution in the country.

“I think the Myanmar military is to blame a lot and the only person that can turn them around, I believe, is Aung San Suu Kyi, and she should start doing that,” Richardson said.

We haven’t had a response from the military on Richardson’s thoughts so far, but the generals were more vocal about a recent pro-peace performance in Yangon, making their thoughts known in a strongly worded statement.

The military strongly criticized the use of generic military uniforms at a performance held to support peace-building activities in Yangon. At the event, former student leader U Min Ko Naing gave a speech in which he called on all military groups, including the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) and the ethnic armed organizations to ramp up their efforts to make peace.

But even as the performance was underway, a thousand kilometers to the north, heavy fighting raged between the Tatmadaw and rebels in Kachin and Shan states (remember them?).

Kachin internally displaced persons in Shait Yang village in Laiza District, an area controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, in January 2017. ( Photo: Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy)

It seems almost everyone has forgotten about Myanmar’s long ethnic struggle as the Rohingya (the term Myanmar people refuse to accept, preferring the name “Bengali”) crisis has overshadowed all else. Among these serious but sadly almost forgotten issues are refugees, internally displaced people and ethnic struggles along the Thai and Chinese borders. The much-touted 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference is in serious doubt, despite a glimmer of good news last week when Mon rebel leaders promised to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in New Mexico, Richardson hasn’t given up his struggle to keep advising “the Lady” and those around her.

While insisting that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remains Myanmar’s best hope for change, he said she had developed a “siege mentality” in her position as State Counselor, the country’s de facto civilian leader, but counseled that Western governments should continue to engage with her.

A disappointed Richardson grumbled of his former friend: “She seems isolated. She doesn’t travel much into the country. I think she’s developed a classic bubble.” Before flying out he also took a parting shot at Advisory Board chairman Surakiart Sathirathai, claiming the former Thai deputy prime minister had “parroted the dangerous and untrue notion that international NGOs employ radicals and that the humanitarian agencies are providing material support to ARSA” (a reference to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant group that launched attacks on Myanmar security outposts last summer).

Surakiart swiftly rejected the allegation, saying he had never made such a statement. On the contrary, he countered, the board welcomed more participation from the United Nations and the international community and had recommended that press freedoms be safeguarded.

(This might be a good time to point out that, actually, along the Thai-Myanmar border and elsewhere in decades past, ethnic groups and Myanmar citizens have seen a parade of INGOS and humanitarian missions come and go, often supporting rebels’ causes in a variety of different ways. So, Richardson and Surakiart, it looks like you two might just have to agree to disagree.)

The Mae Tao Clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Run by Dr. Cynthia Maung, the clinic has been providing medical care mostly to Karen, Shan and other internally displaced persons along the Thai-Myanmar border. ( Photo: The Irrawaddy)

It was hard to ignore a certain irony when Richardson later remarked that, “The relationship with the West, with human rights groups, with the United Nations, with the international media, is terrible.” Some observers in this country were quick to quip: “Is he talking about Myanmar or Trump?”

So, who’s leaving next? Watching this fiasco unfold, some observers have wondered why the State Counselor bothered to invite these foreign wise men into the country in the first place? Indeed, some diplomats, generally stifling a chuckle, have been heard to mutter something along the lines of: “Appointing famous politicians with large egos, Suu Kyi doesn’t even know how to manage them. These guys never stop talking!”

The economy is in bad shape and the country’s banks look decidedly shaky. Tycoons are worried about the future, despite the World Bank’s rather disingenuous conclusion last year that “Myanmar is one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia.” Tourism is down, as foreign TV screens fill with images of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh reporting human rights abuses and a brutal crackdown.

With the country apparently going backwards, if not sinking into an abyss, the former military leaders who left the country’s ruling council in 2010 and 2011 have reportedly been holding informal meetings to assess the situation. This points to either political intervention or a compromise in the near future, but who knows how or when.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is copping a lot of flak these days and Richardson is certainly correct about her “siege mentality.” But recently, a flicker of light appeared in the darkness for Myanmar’s de facto leader, who, having been accused of “lacking moral courage” by some in the international community, received some free advice from an unexpected quarter.

While attending a business forum in New Delhi last week, the State Counselor found herself face to face with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (a man who has never been accused of an excess of moral leadership).

He helpfully advised the Nobel Peace Laureate – who some have taken to saying should be stripped of the prize — that she should not bother about rights activists, as they are “just a noisy bunch.”

“We were talking about our country, the interests of our country… and I said ‘Do not mind the human rights [activists]. They are just a noisy bunch, actually,” Duterte said.

Memo to Governor Richardson: Please don’t stop talking…