Myanmar is not a simple morality tale

Roger Cohen

AS world capitals go, this is one of the weirdest. Six-lane highways with scarcely a car on them could serve as runways. The roads connect concealed ministries and vast convention centres. A white heat glares over the emptiness. There is no hub, gathering place or public square — and that is the point. Military leaders in Myanmar wanted a capital secure in its remoteness, and they unveiled this city in 2005. Yangon, the bustling former capital, was treacherous; over the decades of suffocating rule by generals, protests would erupt. So it is in this undemocratic fortress, of all places, that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, long the world’s champion of democracy, spends her days, contemplating a spectacular fall from grace: the dishonoured icon in her ghostly labyrinth.
Seldom has a reputation collapsed so fast. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated Burmese independence hero, Aung San, endured 15 years of house arrest in confronting military rule. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. Serene in her bravery and defiance, she came to occupy a particular place in the world’s imagination and, in 2015, swept to victory in elections that appeared to close the decades-long military chapter in Myanmar history. But her muted evasiveness before the flight across the Bangladeshi border of some 620,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, has prompted international outrage. Her halo has evaporated.
After such investment in her goodness, the world is livid at being duped. The city of Oxford stripped her of an honour. It’s open season against “The Lady,” as she is known. Why can she not see the “widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces” to which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded during a brief visit this month, actions the State Department defined last week as “ethnic cleansing”? The problem is with what the West wants her to be. Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general who delivered a report on the situation in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, just as the violence erupted there, told me that people in the West were incensed about Aung San Suu Kyi because, “We created a saint and the saint has become a politician, and we don’t like that.”
Certainly Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared unmoved. She has avoided condemning the military for what the United Nations has called a “human rights nightmare.” She shuns the word “Rohingya,” a term reviled by many in Myanmar’s Buddhist majority as an invented identity. Her communications team has proved hapless, and opacity has become a hallmark of her administration as she has shunned interviews. At a rare appearance with Tillerson at the Foreign Ministry here, she said, “I don’t know why people say that I’ve been silent.” It’s untrue, she insisted. “I think what people mean is that what I say is not interesting enough. But what I say is not meant to be exciting, it’s meant to be accurate. And it’s aimed at creating more harmony.”
In many respects, the military continues to rule. When her National League for Democracy won the 2015 election, Aung San Suu Kyi did not become president. The world rejoiced — and glossed over this detail. The 2008 Constitution, crafted by the military, bars her from the presidency because she has children who are British citizens. So she labours under the contrived honorific of state counsellor. The Ministries of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs — all the guns — remain under military control, as do the National Defence and Security Council and 25 percent of all seats in Parliament. This was not a handover of power. It was a highly controlled, and easily reversible, cession of partial authority.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decisions must be seen in this context. She is playing a long game for real democratic change. “She is walking one step by one step in a very careful way, standing delicately between the military and the people,” said U Chit Khaing, a prominent businessman in Yangon. Perhaps she is playing the game too cautiously, but there is nothing in her history to suggest she’s anything but resolute. The problem is she’s a novice in her current role. As a politician, not a saint, it must be said that Aung San Suu Kyi has proved inept. This is scarcely surprising. She lived most of her life abroad, was confined on her return, and has no prior experience of governing or administering.
In Rakhine State, where all hell broke loose last August, the poverty is etched in drawn faces with staring eyes. The streets of its capital, Sittwe, a little over an hour’s flight from Yangon, are dusty and depleted. Its beach is overrun with stray dogs and crows feeding on garbage. As the town goes, so goes all of Rakhine, now one of the poorest parts of Myanmar, itself a very poor country. The violence that ripped through the northern part of the state was a disaster foretold.
I spoke by phone with Saed Mohamed, a 31-year-old teacher confined since 2012 in a camp. “The government has cheated us so many times,” he told me. “I have lost my trust in Aung San Suu Kyi. She is still lying. She never talks about our Rohingya suffering. She talks of peace and community, but her government has done nothing for reconciliation.” Myanmar, with its bell-shaped golden pagodas dotting the landscape, shimmering in the liquid light, often seems gripped these days by a fevered view of itself as the last bastion of Buddhism, facing down the global advance of Islam in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere. The Rohingya have come to personify these fears.
— Courtesy: The New York Times

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