Removing the veil of ignorance: the destructive impacts of recent international criticisms of the Rohingya

Removing Suu Kyi as the LSESU Honorary President bears no productive impacts. Rather, it weakens the key pivot that holds Myanmar’s volatile social fabric together, and lends weight to more radical, uncontrollable groups. A key nuance here that is often ignored – Myanmar, as in any other Southeast Asian nation, is not a European country or a Western liberal democracy. One cannot understand Myanmar from an ideological or static lens.

Three questions to be answered. First, has Suu Kyi really been silent on the issue? Second, if indeed removing her as honorary president is impactful, what does it really mean when contextualised in Myanmar? Third, what should be done instead?

1. Has Aung San Suu Kyi been silent on the issue then?

Suu Kyi is just as much the victim of the military in a new and fragile democracy. Their democracy is barely 2 years old! The equivalent here would be to expect Cromwellian democracy or any early European democracies to reach the level of stability the UK has in the 21st century. Let’s also not forget that Myanmar’s democracy is in its infancy. With 25% of parliament seats constitutionally reserved for the Tatmadaw (the military), alongside their veto power in parliamentary votes, prevent any meaningful action to be made.

Given that, she cannot outright shaft the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, who not only have complete control over security issues and defence but more importantly, can legally use the 2008 constitution to organise a coup d’état against her hybrid civilian-military government.

This is not an assumption. They did it in 1988 and over the 8888 Uprising. They have also used Suu Kyi’s public speech to send her into house arrest in 1990, negating the NLD’s iconic landslide victory.

More importantly, Suu Kyi wasn’t silent, though she is calculative and smart. All politicians do that – Southeast Asia necessitates Realpolitik. It is a reality of life in our side of the world, a necessity to get policy, governance and daily life going.

Suu Kyi no longer walks the same path as the political activist she was before. She is now a politician. Take Samantha Power’s differences in her views on American foreign interventions and foreign policy in the developing world before and after she joined the Obama Administration. We see a clear parallel here, except with more depth and seriousness given the volatility and unpredictability of Myanmarese political dynamics.

Suu Kyi used her position as the world’s favourite People Power symbol, ringing well with those who experienced and watched over strongmen politics in 1980s Southeast Asia to gain donations through the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD) to rebuild the Rakhine state. She used her political power to lobby military personnel to engage with the Kofi Annan committee.

More often ignored, she used her experience as a Myanmarese to speak up on the nature of the conflict that is repeatedly simplified by the Western media.

2. So, if indeed removing her as honourary president is impactful, what does it really mean when contextualised in Myanmar?

Say, if she does condemn the military, as the Secretary-General of the LSESU wanted, the lives of the Rohingya are even at a greater risk. This is hardly close to be an overstatement by any standard. Politics in Southeast Asia is complex, volatile and multifaceted in the most literal sense. Her domestic support-will collapse, she jeopardises Myanmar’s fragile democracy that she fought for (for years) and she risked escalating the conflict as a statement ‘against’ the military indicates a statement ‘for’ the RSA-the extremist group. Yes, the politics in Southeast Asia is that complicated and we look at two main aspects.

First, we need to understand the Myanmarese media environment, which like its counterparts in most Southeast Asian nations, is highly insular and nationalistic. When there’s negative news about the country, they gather round and create their own echo chamber.

True, international news do get caught on and to the outsider, Suu Kyi, the military and the Ma Ba Tha could be seen to be in a far weaker position.

But Vernacular media echoes what grassroots sentiments are. Rather than positing that Suu Kyi is incompetent and should leave, they gather round and lobby for stepping up denials, Islamophobia and press hard to heighten the crisis. Once you move away from the liberal pockets of Yangon, that meant crushing the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and to exact revenge on the Rohingya, whatever the collateral is. But do note that Myanmarese media is not unidimensional – they carry different nuances in their attitudes towards the Tatmadaw, Suu Kyi, the NLD, the NLD branches, the Ma Ba Tha, the ARSA and the Rohingyas.

Unfortunately for us, Myanmarese media and society function differently from what the international media and we normally think – international criticism won’t simply weaken her, puts pressure on her, getting her to attack the military and condemn the genocide.

Not quite the case. Every bit of international criticism changes the dynamics of Myanmarese politics and it does not bend towards justice or protection for the Rohingya or indeed any Myanmarese minorities. If anything, this is beyond ineffective and counterproductive, it’s destructive, all while we sit in our comfortable couches enjoying electoral liberal democracy in London.

Criticism by the West is mobilizing her supporters at home, including among minority Myamarese Muslims. For example, personal attacks by Oxford and others have led to rallies being held around the country, with crowds chanting her name. At an interfaith gathering attended by thousands in Yangon, many clutched photographs of the painting removed by St Hugh’s college. Our criticism of Suu Kyi is fragmenting and radicalising Myanmarese society and politics. Hard-line nationalists applaud Suu Kyi’s defiance in the face of Western colonialists’ pressure, Myanmarese activists fear a return to international isolation and military dominance, while minority Myanmarese Muslims across the country fear further Islamophobia. Many are pleading for international patience.

Second, we need to understand Suu Kyi’s internal position. Her federal image derives from 2 facets:

One, she is the daughter of Aung San, considered by the Myanmarese to be the nation’s founding father, which is straightforward. And that she fought hard during and after the 8888 Uprisings.

Two, dive deeper into the Myanmar society and you can draw out the broad groups her domestic position is supported by – the regional NLD branches (mostly vernacular and also not necessarily Burmese by race), the Ma Ba Tha (and abroad selection of politically involved Buddhist monks), the Tatmadaw’s moderates and the NLD grassroots who stood by her over and after 8888.

All 4 groups aren’t too happy with her and bears worries over how a weakened Suu Kyi can still result in a Myanmar without widespread strife, instability and conflict.

She’s not liberalising the media and laws governing dissent fast enough, and crucially she can’t either – Myanmar is in its initial stages of national consolidation. There is yet a strong, consensus-driven national identity. Myanmar remains vernacular and regionally polarised. There is borderline tolerance, let alone integration. A passion-driven domestic media, compounded by a myriad of politically underrepresented minorities e.g. Arakanese, Shan, will simply drive internal tensions and strife out of control.

Given that her NLD support drew primarily from the fight for free speech, her default NLD supporters are understandably disillusioned.

Further, the Ma Ba Tha has the symbolic benefit of riding on the historic political and educational role that Buddhist monks play in Myanmarese culture, as the faces of the 8888 Uprising and the preceding internal conflicts with the Rohingyas. To put it crudely, Ma Ba Tha has been dissatisfied with Suu Kyi’s “selling out of the Buddhist Burmese people’s hard-fought democracy by sympathising with the Muslim Rohingyas”.

Putting up against the Ma Ba Tha, Islamophobic and nationalistic groups of Buddhist monks is beyond political suicide. It is national suicide in its literal sense. More than being the face of Myanmarese struggle for independence against British Rule, national consolidation and the 8888 Uprisings, they are the main source of childhood education most Myanmarese had. Their road to economic growth, moral enlightenment and intellectual maturity is associated with Buddhist monks and temples. They are the very fabric of Myanmarese society.

While the military by default does not like her anyway, the NLD regional leaders are not too happy with her over the lack of political representation and development funding in, say, the Shan State, either.

Lose or even weaken Suu Kyi, and you have already-regionalistic subnational leaders outside of Yangon and Naypyitaw, a Taliban-like Ma Ba Tha riding on NLD grassroots’ disillusion and the military waiting for a comeback. At this point, Suu Kyi seems to be the only person capable of holding the social fabric together. There are simply no better alternatives and the other alternatives possibly mean complete national obliteration and strife.

Most of us in London simply lack the geographical proximity to comprehend its human cost. Let us realise the arc of the moral universe is long and bend towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said. But let’s not be hasty, snap that arc and make life worse in Southeast Asia and for the Rohingya.

Democracy and preventing human rights abuses are not mutually exclusive but in Southeast Asia, you need a balance of powers and consolidated institutions between the myriad of interest groups for both to take place.

Without which you have turmoil, leaving chance for another Tatmadaw takeover or worse, throwing radical interest groups out of control and sending Myanmar into deep fragmentation. In that case, forget about stopping the genocide because there could very well be no tangible mechanisms to prevent violence and destruction left at all. Remember, you lose democracy, you risk greater human rights violations.

3. Lastly, what should be done instead?

No one can deny the Rohingya Genocide. But us, with closer proximity to the Genocide, generally prefer a more institutional approach. We can scream, shout and demolish Suu Kyi’s PR position, and certainly it will make a lot of us happier – that she is living up to her historical fame of protest.

But if that jeopardises any opportunity to resolve the crisis, by fragmenting, radicalising Myanmarese society and politics, then keep that loud voice for later.

Pressuring Suu Kyi, is counter-productive. St. Hugh’s College in Oxford removed her portrait but look what happened? Nothing productive but instead, consolidate the narratives that make lives worse for the Rohingyas and the Myanmarese who want to speak up for them, tightening further the constraints faced by Suu Kyi.

Our efforts should not be geared towards removing Suu Kyi’s honorary title. The publicity we get is insignificant vis-a-vis the solutions required. The publicity we get is indeed, destructive. Instead, we must pressure and target PR sanctions on the military, not Suu Kyi. They control the key ministries – Border Affairs and Defence over the Genocide. In removing Suu Kyi’s honorary title, we play ourselves in what the military wants, without considering the human cost of the Myanmar people, including the Rohingya. They want more international pressure on Suu Kyi. That said, if and when she actually speaks up, she will lose support from the majority Buddhist demographic and the army can regain power again.

We should also condemn individual states and the United Nation. Just weeks after accusing the Myanmar military of perpetrating a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” on the country’s Muslims, the United Nations Security Council has dropped plans to adopt a legally binding resolution calling for an end to violence in Rakhine state. Regional leaders were committed to the principle of non-interference. All but Malaysia has not condemned the acts of the military.

There are hardly any possible non-binary outcomes here given the complete lack of strong regional leaders in this new 2-year-old partial democracy. Lobby for stronger NLD regional leaders, or grassroots leaders in secondary cities to be federal figures capable of holding the Myanmarese social fabric together.

Most importantly, lend support to ongoing aid – donate, volunteer, campaign – by which we can entirely forget about if Myanmar destabilises, because we wanted the sole non-military federal symbol condemned, deconstructed and sent back to her days of protest.

By Suah Jing Lian and Hanan Md Nor

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