The recent catastrophe in western Myanmar has drawn international attention as it has created nearly half a million refugees within a month. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, has been the center of attention, and her international friends are turning into foes. She blames it on fake news.
International communities supported her for nearly three decades and have given her numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, for her struggle against ruthless military dictators. After her release from house arrest in 2012, she traveled around the world, even to Fort Wayne, meeting supporters and strengthening diplomatic relations. Mayor Tom Henry declared the date of her visit here, Sept. 25, 2012, “Aung San Suu Kyi Day.”
Much of Myanmar's political landscape has changed drastically in the recent past. Her political party, the National League for Democracy, won a majority in both chambers of parliament in national elections in 2015. Suu Kyi now holds a specially created position of state counselor and serves as minister of foreign affairs. Her scope of authority is even higher than that of the nation's president. But there is one asset she is unable to put her hands on: Myanmar's armed forces.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is the commander in chief; he controls Myanmar's armed forces. There is 25 percent military representation in every level of parliament, and it controls three main ministries – border affairs, defense and home affairs. Hlaing is answerable to no one, but the world knows little of him. This is the masterpiece of the 2008 Myanmar constitution that is specially designed to keep the military in control of politics. Suu Kyi's attempt to amend the constitution was unsuccessful. As the head of the government, she has no choice but to share power with her former rival. She runs the government within Myanmar's authoritarian elite society.
She refrains from criticizing the wrongdoing of the military. Her eyes are on national development through peace and harmony. But over the 18 months since she took office, her ambition to solve a 70-year-long internal conflict faces unprecedented obstacles. Among those challenges she inherited, the Rohingya conundrum is by far the most complex.
The Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim population, claim the western tip of Myanmar as their own, passed along over generations. Myanmar refuses to recognize their claim; they are not among the nation's list of 135 officially recognized ethnicities. Instead, they are called Bengali, illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh. Due to extreme tension over the identity issue, Suu Kyi's government suggested avoiding conflicting terms and referring to them as the “Muslim community from Rakhine state.”
In late 2012, communal violence erupted over an allegation in the homicide of a young Rakhine girl. The dirt has not settled since. In September 2016, Suu Kyi appointed former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anaan to head a commission to find the root cause of the tension and a sustainable solution.
The situation got worse when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an armed group regarded as terrorists by the Myanmar government, attacked police posts in the Maungdaw district last month. This new group emerged in response to the increasing tension in the region and claims no affiliation to other foreign armed groups. Unlike other ethnic rebellions, ARSA members are considered foreigners, thus the ARSA attack was considered a foreign threat. The military, under the direct command of Gen. Hlaing, launched its clearance operation promptly.
According to the United Nations, the military campaign has pushed about 420,000 people across the border with Bangladesh, and the number is rising. While the situation affects the Muslim population disproportionately, Buddhists and Hindus in the area are also affected severely. The U.N.'s Human Rights Commission chief has referred to the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Suu Kyi responded that the cause of the refugee crisis is a mystery, claiming the clearance operation concluded on Sept. 5. Her attempt to create a working relationship with the military is costing her international support.
The international community, which once praised Suu Kyi as a human rights champion, is now criticizing her for lack of firm action to contain this situation. She canceled her appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Instead, she delivered her speech from the capital of Yangon and called it a diplomatic briefing. That did not stop world leaders from calling on her for more sustainable action.
While she is under pressure from the international community and losing the support of Rohingya sympathizers, she gains more trust from the military and Myanmar nationalists. Her supporters across the globe have launched a “We Stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” campaign with faith in their hearts that she is doing her best for the nation's future. Among the people of Myanmar, the fraction is running deep.
Minn Myint Nan Tin, a native of Myanmar, is a Fort Wayne resident and community advocate.