A Myanmar court has rejected the appeal of two Reuters journalists jailed for exposing crimes committed by the country’s military against the Rohingya. No better proof could be needed of the extent to which authoritarianism has once again returned to Myanmar. This anti-democratic resurgence has an unlikely source: the Nobel Peace Prize laureate once reflexively referred to as a democracy “icon.”
It is increasingly apparent that the Myanmar military and its leader share with the de facto President Aung San Suu Kyi a similar vision for the future of the country. It is an age-old vision of domination by a nationalist Buddhist elite, who have difficulty accommodating any form of dissent, and demonstrate very little regard for the aspirations of the other ethnic groups with whom they should be negotiating an end to decades of armed conflict. As a result, the hopes for democracy and peace in Myanmar are steadily unraveling — and the conditions for any quick return of the Rohingya increasingly becoming elusive.
The main differences between the commander in chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as “the Lady,” appear to have less to do with ideology than their desire for power. And though Aung San Suu Kyi seems committed to some form of parliamentary governance, her approach has strikingly authoritarian traits. Members of parliament from her party, the National League for Democracy, are held on a very tight leash. The repressive apparatus of the state, put in place by the British and refined by the former military regime, is now used by her government to intimidate and suppress dissenting voices. A recently published civil society report found that since the 2015 elections (which the Lady’s party won), 139 journalists and civil society activists have been arrested, as compared to 11 in the preceding five years. Increasingly, the Myanmar of today resembles that which I knew when serving as the United Nations representative during the dark ages of the junta.
The peace process is now being held hostage to a broader confrontation between the Lady and the senior general. Both are increasingly focusing their attention on the 2020 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to demonstrate before then her ability to get as many of the 21 insurgencies, known collectively as the ethnic armed organizations, to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA); the military wants to prove that she can’t. And although both recognize the importance of peace for the country’s socioeconomic prosperity (much of Myanmar’s natural wealth lies in the contested areas), neither is genuinely interested in reaching out to the ethnic armed organizations, or any other ethnic leaders in any significant way.
Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, insists that the ethnic groups should commit to not seceding and accept one Myanmar army before negotiations can even begin. Needless to say, such demands preclude any constructive dialogue. The NCA contains within it a commitment to establish “a union based upon the principles of democracy and federalism.” In the meantime, legislation on land ownership and the management of natural resources — which does not recognize the right of return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic villagers displaced from their ancestral lands because of the decades of conflict — is being passed through parliament without the involvement of those most directly concerned, namely the ethnic armed organizations and other ethnic leaders.
In her defense, it is possible that Aung San Suu Kyi is under pressure from her base among the Buddhist Bamar majority. Forces hostile to her are being mobilized through the Ma Ba Tha, the extremist Buddhist network. Alliances against her are being formed with the political party of the former regime. Thus, even if she were sympathetic to the demands of the ethnic armed organizations (which is a big if), it is possible that Aung San Suu Kyi may not have as much freedom to accommodate them. Similarly, there is little real political incentive to resolve the Rohingya crisis.
Ominously, the Lady is using the cessation of fighting that the cease-fires — in place since 2012 due to the previous government — have brought to the southeastern parts of the country to extend the central government’s presence into ethnic administered areas. This is done through the provision of central government services while simultaneously denying international support to existing ethnic administrations. The Myanmar military, for its part, is reinforcing its positions in the same southeast areas to the point of provocation. None of this is conducive to the trust needed for any sort of genuine dialogue.
As someone who has witnessed so much of Myanmar’s recent past, I find it deeply saddening to watch an opportunity for a historic peace being missed, to understand the extent to which the conditions for the return of the Rohingya do not exist, and to have to accept that the Aung San Suu Kyi once so venerated by the world is no more.
Charles Petrie, former U.N. assistant secretary general, just returned from Myanmar, where he has been involved in the peace process since 2012, and had served as the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator from 2003 to 2007.