Just days before the November 2015 general election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was asked how she would remedy the long-running repression of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, if her party came to power. She replied: “There’s a Burmese saying: You have to make big problems small and small problems disappear.”
Less than a year after the National League for Democracy’s sweeping victory, the big Rohingya problem had only gotten bigger. Violence broke out in the western state of Rakhine, where most Rohingya live, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was already being lambasted for seeming indifferent to their hardships, is now accused of silently standing by outright abuses.
Some of the criticism is deserved, but some of it is not, and the N.L.D. government understandably is chafing. But it has been slinging as much mud at activists and independent media as they are hurling accusations at it, and all this is only obscuring the vexing complexities of the situation in Rakhine. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has inherited an intractable-seeming problem after decades of military rule, and its specifics need to be understood if the Rohingya stand any chance of being helped effectively.
After decades of tensions, an outbreak of communal violence in 2012 cleaved apart the Muslim and Buddhist communities of Rakhine. More than 120,000 people, mostly Rohingya, remain displaced within the state. Many of the more than one million Rohingya who were gradually denied citizenship and disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 election still do not have adequate identity papers. Restrictions on movement in northern Rakhine curtail people’s access to work, basic public services and religious freedoms.
This already dire situation was inflamed last October, when nine members of the Border Guard police were killed in attacks on outposts along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh, allegedly by local Rohingya and a foreign-trained group of Rohingya from the Middle East. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, retaliated with a brutal counterinsurgency operation. An estimated 1,500 buildings in Maungdaw Township have been torched. Human rights groups have documented numerous extrajudicial killings, rapes and beatings by state security forces. Some 65,000 Muslims have since fled to Bangladesh, according to the United Nations.
Even though official state media have admitted that scores of people were “found dead” and hundreds of suspected militants and their supporters have been arrested, the government has essentially denied any grave abuses by security forces. The rebuttals — a combination of callous, clumsy and sometimes comical — have come variously from the spokesman of the president’s office, the increasingly retrograde-sounding state media and the Facebook pages of several officials. The state counselor’s office, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own, emblazoned the words “Fake Rape” on its website to discredit reports that troops had committed sexual violence.
No doubt, some of the news reporting about the conflict has been sloppy, with media outlets running fabricated news, photos and footage of alleged abuses. (The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, posted on its site a video purporting to show a Myanmar soldier torturing a Rohingya toddler with a stun gun. In fact, it was footage of child abuse in Cambodia.) Crude misinformation is disseminated at a prodigious rate by members of the Rohingya diaspora outside Myanmar, especially via the widely discredited websites Rohingya Blogger and Rohingya Vision. Still, the reaction of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration has been astonishingly obtuse.
Any government genuinely committed to transparency would have ignored this hysteria and guaranteed accredited journalists and human rights investigators unfettered access to verify allegations of abuse. Instead, the N.L.D. government has dismissed and discredited much of the media. Security forces have prevented journalists from entering northern Rakhine, only fueling concerns that humanitarian assistance to people in the conflict area was being obstructed. A special investigative committee led by former Gen. Myint Swe was formed to look into the October violence — and it promptly dismissed wholesale any claims of misbehavior by the security forces.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s aura as an international human rights icon has understandably been tarnished. At the same time, criticism of her is so sweeping and excessive that it obscures the considerable obstacles she and her government face, and the complex realities of post-authoritarian Myanmar.
For one thing, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was saddled with the institutionalized persecution of the Rohingya when she came to power. Relations between the Muslim community and the Rakhine, a Buddhist ethnic minority, were tense for decades, long before the outbreak of violence in 2012. Many Rakhine also deeply distrust the military and the central government, both of which are dominated by ethnic Burmese: The Rakhine believe they have been neglected and that their state’s natural wealth has been plundered. During the many years of military rule, the Tatmadaw fanned local ethnic divisions throughout the country. In Rakhine, it took increasingly repressive measures against the Rohingya, and violent campaigns in 1978 and in the early 1990s drove hundreds of thousands of people into Bangladesh.
The government of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has already taken important steps to address these deep fissures. She announced the creation of the Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State, as well as plans for comprehensive economic development. An Advisory Commission on Rakhine State was also formed, comprising several prominent international and Myanmar diplomats, human rights commissioners and retired officials, and with the former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at its head.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for reportedly requesting foreign diplomats to refrain from using the term “Rohingya.” But it is rarely acknowledged that she has also instructed Myanmar officials to stop referring to Rohingya as “Bengali,” a designation they reject and that is often employed as a slur. Her aim apparently is to tone down the often overblown and incendiary debate about the Rohingya’s identity and refocus the discussion on finding practical solutions to problems affecting their livelihoods.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is also being taken to task for acts committed by the security forces, yet she has no means of reining them in. She is formally circumscribed by the 2008 Constitution, which gives senior military officers control over three key security ministries: defense, border affairs and home affairs. If she condemned abuses and insisted on holding perpetrators accountable, she would have few levers over the military to do much about them: The Constitution also reserves for the Tatmadaw one-quarter of all seats in Parliament.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out against the military’s culture of impunity may indeed be emboldening its behavior in Rakhine. But she has to strike a very delicate balance — and pursue a broad reform agenda, partly in the hope of amending the undemocratic Constitution, while making sure not to antagonize the Tatmadaw, which has the most to lose from further liberalization. The Rohingya issue also is unpopular: The group is widely reviled by the ethnic-Burmese and Buddhist majority.
The international community, if it is serious about helping the Rohingya, must better understand the complex realities of Myanmar’s continuing transition, and balance its fixation with their plight — an obsession out of proportion with the scale of the problem — with the inescapable challenges that the N.L.D. government has inherited after decades of military mismanagement. Positioning the deplorable repression of the Rohingya in this broader political context does not exculpate the state’s failure to prevent and punish any abuses, or exonerate Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi for her seemingly tacit endorsement of heartless official denials. But only a more calibrated understanding of the difficulties faced by her government and Myanmar as a whole — not blanket condemnation — stands any chance of yielding practical measures that could alleviate the Rohingya’s suffering.
David Scott Mathieson, Senior Researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch from 2006 to 2016, is an independent analyst based in Yangon.