Trends of 2016: Could the Rohingya be Aung San Suu Kyi’s downfall?

Trends of 2016: Could the Rohingya be Aung San Suu Kyi’s downfall?

By downplaying the Rohingya issue, Aung San Suu Kyi is walking a thin line, trying to balance competing interests. Yet her silence undermines her position.

Since October 9th, political conflict has re-emerged in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The global media has reported widely on the atrocities committed against the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, with some even calling it a genocide. These reports expose the absolute power that Myanmar’s military continues to wield over state and society. They have dampened the expectations for democratic progress under the fledgling civilian government, led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The optimism exhibited as Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy (NLD) took power was coupled with a changed political attitude from the west. Myanmar quickly established itself as the new darling of Southeast Asia; a real mover and shaker. But for some experts, Suu Kyi’s role quickly evolved from being an icon of democracy and defender of human rights to that of a working politician. This meant courting majority (Buddhist) interests and re-establishing amicable relations with the military regime which had imprisoned her.

It is within this equation that Myanmar’s Rohingya population, around one million strong, have suffered. Suu Kyi has been accused of not doing enough to improve their situation, appearing indecisive and unwilling. Arguably, her silence on the injustices against the Rohingya risks eroding her substantial political legitimacy as well as her moral authority. But will this happen and, if so, is it significant?

What has Suu Kyi done, and what more can she do?

Much of Suu Kyi’s work so far has focused on strategic political reforms aimed at opening up the country to investment. President Obama’s decision to lift all remaining sanctions on Myanmar had provided Suu Kyi with some breathing space. This has distracted attention away from the fact that the Rohingya remain “at the bottom of Myanmar’s social and political heap.” Due to her own struggles for emancipation, her failure to address the plight of the Rohingya is in one sense surprising.

The Rohingya problem has been described as “untouchable” – reflecting the structural constraints that limit the possibilities for meaningful political action. The still-powerful military, the quasi-democratic constitution and the powerful Buddhist-nationalist lobby are just a few of these constraints. They render the NLD incapable of forging ahead on meaningful change for the Rohingya. Lest she wish to provoke the Tatmadaw, it would be unwise for Suu Kyi to make the Rohingya a central political issue. As a politician and a pragmatist, Suu Kyi will be aware that by ignoring Buddhist sensitivities she also risks alienating her political support base.

Some argue that the Rohingya will become collateral damage in Myanmar’s eventual transition to democracy. However, Suu Kyi’s pledge to implement a sustainable solution for all communities in Rakhine did not include a time limit. Realistically, the transition taking place – the first peaceful transfer of power in Myanmar’s history – will be a delicate and protracted process. The country is treading unknown territory and Suu Kyi must gradually increase her and the NLD’s power and legitimacy, all while maximising their re-election chances.

Suu Kyi’s slow and cautious approach was exemplified when she recently downplayed the Rohingya issue, asking the international community not to stoke communal tensions. This rhetoric was mirrored by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General employed to head the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. According to Annan, the Rohingya conflict will not destabilise the region, but “will be contained.” Collectively, these statements signal that little will change on the ground, at least for the short term.

Realistically, Suu Kyi has many other problems to deal with, which may prove more feasible than the ‘untouchable’ Rohingya, around which she can build legitimacy. Brokering a fragile peace deal with the various ethnic insurgent groups is one such example (despite the persistent obstacles faced in achieving this).

What will happen if Suu Kyi fails to address the Rohingya issue?

But the deteriorating situation in Rakhine state has caused concern among ASEAN member states, with Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia the most vocal. Yet some argue that these countries have only shown ‘crocodile tears’ for the Rohingya, who are exploited “as a convenient political football.” Indonesia has only intervened because the Rohingya issue has translated into negative political sentiment for President Joko Widodo’s government. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also has an ulterior motive. His condemnation of Myanmar at a recent political demonstration was likely to divert attention away from his own abuses of power.

Suu Kyi recently met in Yangon with ASEAN foreign ministers to discuss current political tensions. According to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting contained “open, frank and constructive discussion.” That being said, it is unlikely that such discussion will translate into concrete policy. ASEAN does not make decisions without consensus, and so inaction on the Rohingya remains a strong possibility.

Crucially, ASEAN was also founded on a policy of non-interference among member states. Although this has encouraged member states to ignore human rights abuses in favour of concentrating on trade, it also means there is no regional ‘moral order’ within which Myanmar is ranked. For this reason the idea of expelling Myanmar from ASEAN, as requested by various Malaysian political figures, is not realistic. It would risk setting a precedent that could land other member states in trouble in the future.

ASEAN members must choose their battles carefully in order to ensure that the fabric of political cooperation is not undone. Applying anything more than light pressure could compromise these states’ economic arrangement, as happened recently with Myanmar’s ban on workers travelling to Malaysia. Regional unity must take precedence at a time when the region faced with significant threats. The rise of China is one; the growth of homegrown Islamic State (IS) activity is another.

International pressure has also proven ineffective, aside from curbing the exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar on a temporary basis. President Htin Kyaw has in the past criticised the U.S for claiming a moral high ground despite refusing to allow foreign investigations into Guantanamo Bay. The presidency of Donald Trump could further dent the West’s ability to claim this high ground. Trump’s potential turn away from the region may also encourage Myanmar to seek rapprochement with Beijing.  In fact, Suu Kyi has “adopted positions that are generally accommodating to Beijing’s interests.” This includes expressing support for China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) strategy, but also – and more interestingly – muting her concerns about human rights in China.

Moving forward

It is perhaps too early to criticise Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya situation, for she is yet to complete her first year in power. Nevertheless, so far she has failed in a game of brinkmanship that has sought to balance Buddhist political sensitivities with progressive and meaningful reforms. Certainly in the short to medium term, Suu Kyi will continue to tread carefully.

Regional pressure is unlikely to produce much in the way of solving these problems. Regardless of the moral or political implications, ASEAN was built to withstand and de-emphasise diplomatic rifts like these. We can, however, perhaps expect more soft political blows to be exchanged between Myanmar and its Muslim-majority neighbours.

The risk of more serious fallout is limited, despite the posturing of certain political leaders. A worsening migration crisis may force Myanmar’s neighbours to step into gear, though recent history shows they would not welcome an open-door policy for Rohingya refugees. The recent meeting in Yangon is also unlikely to amount to much, as ASEAN is hostage to its own design: human rights abuses do not equate to a reduced political standing in this organisation.

America’s change in political direction could prove detrimental for the fate of the Rohingya, with president-elect Trump set to turn his back on the region. Against this backdrop, the Rohingya could indeed become ‘collateral damage’, as western nations fail to take the lead in forging a solution – or imposing punishment.

Domestically, given the structural constraints in place it is unlikely that Suu Kyi will be able to rein in the military and militia groups. Nor is it likely that she will switch from her current stance that communal tensions should not be stoked. The upcoming report from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State is unlikely to contain immediate and actionable solutions, despite Suu Kyi’s pledge.

On the other hand, denying the extent of the problem and discrediting the international community is certainly unsustainable and could negatively impact Myanmar’s investment reputation. As previously argued, continued neglect of Rakhine state could influence a vicious circle that perpetuates human rights abuses caused by an over-concentration of Chinese investment.

Although it is the region’s collective responsibility to forge a solution, Suu Kyi will bear the brunt of the blame. While the military has continued to exercise its power, Suu Kyi has cast herself as the soft, democratic face of the country. But as the military’s actions continue to impede democratic progress, the international community will increasingly question exactly who and what Suu Kyi represents.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at