Guest Column

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is Still Myanmar’s Best Hope

By Tin Maung Htoo 14 September 2017

Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is being criticized by NGOs, media organizations, western governments and some Muslim countries for not being able to protect the 1.1 million Muslims in Rakhine State, who self-identify as Rohingya but are widely referred to in the country as “Bengali” to infer that they are interlopers from Bangladesh.

Some have called for her to be stripped of her Nobel Prize and the honorary Canadian citizenship conferred to her, and for international sanctions and intervention.

Currently, emotions are running high and shaming her has contributed to that. Deep-rooted conflict between the two communities – Buddhists and Muslims – is complex and there is no quick fix; a gradual process is required for a long-lasting solution.

The underlying question is to what extent we know the truth about the situation on the ground or the history between the two communities. It would be wrong to assume that we are fully informed by what we see online or in the media.

Fake news and images have circulated on both sides, exacerbating the situation and making it increasingly difficult to identify the truth. International human rights organizations and the Myanmar government have at times taken part in the spread of some of this misinformation.

Burmese people abroad and at home are increasingly suspicious of the intents of NGOs, the media and some Muslim countries, and point to biased reporting and alleged evidence of participation in the destabilization of the region. Some sources have claimed that groups working on the issue have received financial support from Gulf countries.

There is no doubt that the current humanitarian crisis is a direct result of recent extremist attacks, but repeated condemnation of the government and military counter operations are not fair in the eyes of many Burmese, and encourage ongoing violence. The government, army and majority of the population are united in their response to this crisis, and reasonable international calls might fall on deaf ears under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, we also need to take into account regional and global geopolitical situations. Myanmar has two strong supporters – the US (although their involvement is waning) and China, as well as India.

In that regard, a soft power like Canada needs to be creative and persuasive – to help diffuse the ongoing tension, alleviate the suffering of those who fled the violence, and make reasonable recommendations to the government and people of Myanmar – as the government cannot go against wide popular sentiment. We cannot expect to completely impose international norms and standards on Myanmar, as it is still far from being a truly democratic country.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has come out to say that the information being portrayed is “misguided, misinformed.” Two former US Ambassadors to Burma, Priscilla Clapp and Derek Mitchell, have also discussed the complexity of the situation on the ground and the state counselor’s difficult position.

Of course, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi  – now a politician – is facing the difficult decision of going along with her constituency or pleasing the international community. This is after setting up the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine State Advisory Commission, which was given the mandate of recommending viable solutions to the issues and Rakhine.

The government was reportedly willing to implement these suggestions but violence broke out just hours after the commission delivered its final report. On Aug. 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 police outposts in Rakhine State. The series of attacks were coordinated and premeditated. ARSA’s leader Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia. He led a group of insurgents that previously attacked border guard posts in Rakhine State in October 2016.

It seems as though these attacks were meant to raise international attention and call for intervention against subsequent military operations. Ongoing operations have caused Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu communities in the state to flee, while the international community has focused its attention on the Muslim refugees, fulfilling the militant group’s agenda.

Condemnation is easy. But searching for a viable solution requires patience, thought and understanding of the situation. I doubt that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would mind being stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship or even her Nobel Peace Prize. But that is not a solution.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people are suffering from these conflicts and violence. What we need is to alleviate their suffering and that calls for a constructive, diplomatic approach.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is still the best hope for Burma. There is no alternative.

Tin Maung Htoo is the former executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma, which campaigned for democratization in Myanmar since the 1990s.