The Western world is inexorably witnessing the destruction of an international positive image: a cult of personality through which Aung San Suu Kyi achieved worldwide fame and acclamation. She had become known as the world’s ideal democratic symbol — a seemingly frail person but with iron determination, who had spent a decade and a half under house arrest for espousing and exemplifying democratic ideals against an authoritarian military dictatorship. She sacrificed her family for her perceived democratic role. Now, various international institutions have rescinded their prizes and awards to her; some media have unsympathetically called for the withdrawal of her Nobel Peace prize, and former illustrious supporters have been singularly silent.
Aung San Suu Kyi has frequently stated that she does not want to be a democratic icon, and did not create this image, although she has used it effectively. Instead, she has said she is a Burmese politician. She is, in fact, both, but the pressures on her internal, delicate political role have effectively demolished her international legacy. Her political leadership and actions are severely circumscribed by the military’s continuing control of all the internal official levers of state coercion, together with the national bureaucracy down to the local level. She and her National League for Democracy party have limited legislative authority but no effective power against the military. She has not been, perhaps could not be, an effective politician in the absence of trust between her and the military — trust that is lacking at the highest level.
The growing international anathema is primarily because of treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Myanmar; the Myanmar government refuses to call them by that name, instead derogatorily referring to most as Bengali aliens who should return to Bangladesh. The Rohingya are not recognized by the state as one of its multitudes of indigenous ethnic groups, and thus are not considered candidates for citizenship. Yet there are other ominous signs of legal restrictions on the media and growing rigidity of authoritarian practices unrelated to the Rohingya while fighting continues in the northern reaches of the state.
There is in this tragic circumstance the simultaneous coexistence of myth, illusion, and reality surrounding the intractable Rohingya issue, exacerbating tensions and confusing observers. The reality is that these stateless people are probably the most deprived and threatened group in Asia — reviled in Myanmar and unwanted in Bangladesh. The myths concern their perception of their own centuries-old presence in the region, without regard for modern migration, and the governmental illusions that they are mostly rather recent illegal immigrants and should have no official status as citizens. Both have elements of fact stippled with fiction. As they have been persecuted by the Myanmar and Rakhine Buddhists, some have adopted a type of “victimized” status emphasizing their plight for needed international aid and sympathy.
Some 660,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh, over 6,000 are said to have been killed or died, dozens of villages have been burned, and the trauma of affliction has been all-encompassing. International authorities and agencies have confirmed this horror. The U.S. Department of State, after about a month of official reticence, called the exodus “ethnic cleansing,” but some observers have invoked the accusation of “genocide.” The Burmese military has denied the most serious charges. Although the problem of the Rohingya has been a festering sore in Myanmar, the feeble militarization of Rohingya resentment and resistance through the miniscule but growing Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in August 2017 prompted a massive overreaction by the Myanmar military, who regard this as a national security problem. It is, instead, a locally grown cancer on the state.
Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to balance her delicate, and antagonistic, relationship with the military and her conception of society’s needs, perhaps fearing too strident a stance could prompt an overt return to military rule, which is possible under the constitution in certain circumstances. The Rohingya is the most obvious, but only one of a large number of decades-long minority rebellions and insurrections that plague the state. It may be more than ironic that it was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, who brought the various ethnic groups together and negotiated a “union” of Burma to which the British could grant independence in 1948. His role, and her perceived inheritance of his mantle as a type of personal “manifest destiny,” may partly have prompted Aung San Suu Kyi’s concentrated, but to date ineffective, response to the “peace process” –the settlement of these ethnic disputes that the military regard as the essential danger to the state, the unity of which has been their primary objective.
She was been less than frank with the foreign diplomatic community — formally lecturing them and downplaying, as if they had no knowledge, the atrocities against this imperiled group. In public, Aung San Suu Kyi is seemingly oblivious of the horror of reality. Some say she has sounded as if she were in some enveloping, protective cocoon. She is said to be internally isolated from criticism and whatever authority she possesses is not delegated to her loyal ministers or subordinates. Her pre-eminent role in the official media is as pronounced as in any authoritarian state. Her ubiquitous pictures adorn shops and homes. So the cult of personality, a reflection of the generalized and historic personalization of power in Burmese society, is continuously projected within Myanmar while it expires internationally. Even within Myanmar, however, there is considerable minority disaffection with her leadership role. Minority peace on any front has been ephemeral when not absent.
A deep, pervasive, sense of vulnerability pervades society and the leadership. The Rohingya are most obviously vulnerable — with life and security under threat. Their Buddhist Rakhine (provincial) neighbors feel a different but real sense of vulnerability — they were only conquered by the Burman Buddhist majority in 1785 and have been treated as second-class citizens, and now claim that international aid goes to the Muslims, not to the poor among them. The Burman Buddhist majority of over 40 million feel vulnerable to perceived but improbable Muslim incursions into their Buddhist domination and heritage and have passed legislation to limit Muslim influence and growth. A virulent Buddhist monk movement has led anti-Muslim sentiment and actions. A multitude of other religious minorities — Christian, Muslim, animist — consistently have been alienated from power, authority, and resources, including higher levels of the military. And Aung San Suu Kyi herself is obviously vulnerable as a civilian leader amongst the military milieu who mistrust her. Even the ascendant Burmese military see Western support for national growth faltering, the state’s national reputation in a tailspin with probable negative economic consequences. Western moral support for the Rohingya has provoked an anti-Western backlash and provided a renewed opening for Chinese influence as popular Burmese sentiment is adamantly anti-Rohingya.
Myanmar is plagued by problems: growing economic inequality, corruption, inadequate administration, ethnic prejudice, increasing restrictions on rights and the media, isolation of civil society, and growing anti-foreign nationalism. But the Rohingya dilemma is said to be the “defining issue” facing Myanmar today, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself was during the almost two decade she was under house arrest by the military. The ramifications of the Rohingya crisis transcend and prevent internal rational debate and negotiations, as emotions are so pervasively extreme. If ethnic cleansing is a reality, as it seemingly is, then negotiations for their return are simply an international fig leaf — unwanted by the Burman leadership, the Rakhine, and the most of the Rohingya, who have suffered so outrageously. Internal prejudice is strong, whatever Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal opinions might be — and there is no indication they are basically different from those of the educated Burman majority elite. There seems no likely shorter-term solution to the human misery — misery that has increased even if the killings have ceased, as the annual monsoon rains inundate the region.
Within a shortened horizon, some Burmese cogently insist that Aung San Suu Kyi is the only hope for Myanmar’s democratic progress — with the Rohingya, the minorities, and society more broadly. If this is accurate, then significant changes need to take place in governance and in concepts of the power of all state leaders to ensure that democratic norms are established and maintained, and are not eviscerated by shorter-term contingencies and nationalistic prejudices. This, however, is a tall order indeed.
David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University.