Written by Nathaniel Gonzalez.
On August 25, 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 30 security outposts in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, near the border with Bangladesh. After the Myanmar government labelled the ARSA a terrorist organisation, the Burmese military responded with force. Over the next few weeks, more than one third of the entire Rohingya population in Myanmar, approximately 420,000 people, fled to Bangladesh. Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Entire villages have been burnt to the ground, and paths to safety are often laced with land mines. It is unclear whether the atrocities are being committed by the military or by the ARSA terrorists. The Burmese government would like to convince us of the latter, but most international eyes, long aware of the maltreatment of Rohingya in Myanmar, are skeptical.
The answer to why Aung San Suu Kyi is not taking strong and immediate action on this issue is not simply prejudice. That is undoubtedly part of the problem, but many continue to support the Lady in spite of her neutrality because they understand the political game she must play if Myanmar is ever to escape the shadow of military power.
In her recent speech on the issue, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic icon, maintained a neutral stance by claiming that we need to consider all sides of the problem. She was defensive, suggesting that the international media has placed too much attention on the Rakhine State and has ignored the fact that there are other problems the nation is currently facing. Although Aung San Suu Kyi rightly deserves much of the criticism she has received from international media and from peace icons like Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, we must, as an international audience, understand her context before we condemn her.
Myanmar is not yet a democratic country. As the Huffington Post, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have recently argued, Aung San Suu Kyi has little power to actually solve the ongoing problem in the Rakhine State. Myanmar’s division of governance between civilian and military rule puts all authority on issues of internal security into the hands of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is run by generals in the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military). This division not only affects the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State, but lies at the core of the political crisis Myanmar faces today as it attempts to democratise within the boundaries set by the military.
Indeed, the Burmese military, which ruled the country for 50 years, is still in control of major parts of the government. When analysing the structure of a government, political sociologists often turn to Max Weber’s 1918 definition of a state from his “Politics as Vocation.” Weber argued that in order to be considered a state, an administrative staff must have a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” Myanmar’s civilian government today does not fit that definition, but its military government does.
According to the 2008 Constitution, the Tatmadaw retains 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. It also controls several important Ministries, including Immigration, Border Affairs, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. Together, these ministries control all internal security matters in the country, from the local police and local government, to military operations such as those currently underway in the Rakhine State. In Myanmar today, if a civilian were to call the police to help resolve a dispute between neighbours, or for help after a car crash, they would be calling the military for help.
This division in governance has deep implications for the way things get done in Myanmar. The long history of military rule has made most people mistrust the military, if not outright fear their involvement. This feeling affects not only everyday citizens, but also people elected to civilian positions in government. A common theory, held by many people in Myanmar, suggests that conflicts in this country are instigated by an “invisible hand.” This “invisible hand” wants to de-stabilise the country, and in so doing prove that democracy and the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) are not worth the trouble. The mistrust between those in the military and those outside of it wraps the meaning of almost every act of governance in elaborate webs of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies.
The issue in the Rakhine State is no different. According to the “invisible hand” theory, the violence in the Rakhine State is being instigated by forces that wish to destabilise the country and thereby prove that the only way to keep Myanmar safe is to entrust power to a military dictatorship. Whether or not there is an “invisible hand” behind the conflict, it is only by understanding this context that we can understand why the majority of people in Myanmar, including Muslims outside of the Rakhine State, continue to support Aung San Suu Kyi. The answer to why Aung San Suu Kyi is not taking strong and immediate action on this issue is not simply prejudice. That is undoubtedly part of the problem, but many continue to support the Lady in spite of her neutrality because they understand the political game she must play if Myanmar is ever to escape the shadow of military power.
So what can Aung San Suu Kyi do? Her actions are limited by the political structure of the country. If she declares a state of emergency in Rakhine, that means delivering more power to the military. If she invites more international observers to gather data, she faces the wrath of nationalists who claim she is giving up the future of the country to foreigners. She cannot condemn the military because she has no evidence that they are behind the atrocities being committed—evidence that today could only be gathered by the military itself, since reporters, including local ones, are not allowed into the conflict areas without a military escort.
This is not to say that Aung San Suu Kyi is blameless. But rather than condemning Aung San Suu Kyi, or signing petitions to recall her Nobel Peace Prize, the international community should consider actions appropriate to the delicate political situation in Myanmar today.
Nathaniel Gonzalez is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the ways in which community leaders, civic organisations, and religious organisations work together with local governments to prevent communal violence in Myanmar. Image credit: CC by Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons.