The Politics of Persecution: Why it is Unrealistic to Expect Aung San Suu Kyi to act on behalf of the Rohingya (Part I)

-Bann Seng Tan (Assistant Professor, Political Science and International Relations, Ashoka University)

*This article is published in a two-part series. This is the first part.
* I thank Mehmet Hakkı Uysal (Bogazici University) and Rheea Saggar (Ashoka University) for their editorial assistance.
* The pictures in this article have been solely chosen and included by the editors of the Ashoka Journal of International Relations. The author of this article has not been involved in the same.


Abstract:

The Rohingya issue attracted critical attention from Western states. Much of it is directed at Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She steadfastly rejected the international criticism and instead reflected the viewpoint of the Bamar people. Why did a prominent human rights icon defend state persecution? I argue Western states both overestimated her actual influence and misunderstood her political imperatives. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot intervene without risking the precarious balance of power between her civilian government and the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw. The Rohingya made historical enemies. Myanmar’s political liberalization process gave those enemies a reason to act against them. Key domestic actors, including the army, Buddhist radicals, local Arakan Buddhists, the Bamar ethnic majority, and the National League for Democracy benefit from the status quo. Key foreign powers such as China favor authoritarian elements in the regime while others such as the United States do not prioritize this issue. Given these headwinds, further international pressure- in the current form on Aung San Suu Kyi- is likely to be ineffective. 


The humanitarian crisis faced by Rohingya Muslims has attracted international attention from Western and Muslim states alike in recent years. Much of it is critical and directed mainly at Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.[1] A consistent theme in the Western media coverage is the presumption that Aung San Suu Kyi at least has the moral leadership to shift the discourse on communal violence in Myanmar, such violence in Burma, if not the power to stop the violence outright.

As an illustration, consider the on-the-record comments by Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar (Times 2017; BBC 2017a). The UN believed Aung San Suu Kyi has a real influence which she is not asserting. Lee argued if Aung San Suu Kyi was to “reach out to the people and say, ‘Hey, let’s show some humanity,’ I think people will follow her – she’s adored by the public” (Time 2017).

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Fig.1: Aung San Suu Kyi delivering her Nobel acceptance speech during a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on June 16th, 2012. Source: Daniel Sannum Lauten, Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-world-court-suukyi-t/an-icons-journey-aung-san-suu-kyis-life-in-troubled-myanmar-idUSKBN1YA01X

Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance is not new. Back in 2012, the year Myanmar held its significant by-election under which her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won decisively, there was also another outbreak of anti-Rohingya violence. Peter Popham, a biographer of Aung San Suu Kyi, cited a blogger named Roland Watson, who claims to be one of the first Westerners to criticize Suu Kyi[2]. Watson claimed that Aung San Suu Kyi:

… is the only person with real moral authority over the Burmans… were she to call loudly and repeatedly for the attacks to end, including for the Rohingya to be protected and for the Burma Army to withdraw from Kachin areas, the violence would subside… (Popham 2016: 248)

The refusal by Aung San Suu Kyi to take a firm stance on the issue exasperated and baffled the UN rapporteur and Western observers alike. In fact, as the international pressure mounted on her, the few comments she made reflected the viewpoints of the Bamar people, the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar, instead. The question arises why did a prominent human rights icon refuse to condemn the army-sponsored abuse? How did we get to this situation? And what can we do about it?

This paper, motivated by these questions, is an attempt to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s reaction from within the context of Burmese politics. It locates the political interests of the key political actors, both within Burmese politics and international actors (mainly the West and China). The goal is to determine what leverage, if any, Western foreign actors have over politics in Myanmar. Towards that end, the focus of the paper is not on the humanitarian aspects of the Rohingya Muslim issue, but instead on the politics of political liberalization. To be clear, the paper is not condoning the policies of the Burmese actors that result in human suffering- rather, it seeks to understand that political dynamic as the basis for potential political (non-military) intervention.

I make four arguments in this paper. First, too many key actors benefit from the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Compounding this, the Rohingya has no regional patron unlike the situation for other persecuted minorities in Myanmar.  Second, I argue the West has misconstrued the extent of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political influence in Myanmar. Her legal authority within the country is limited while her political influence over the Burmese military is miniscule. Third, I argue her lack of influence is mainly a result of the grand bargain between the key actors in the Burmese political transition. Furthermore, this pact for limited political reforms is an outcome that the West (and China) has in effect accepted. If the three foregoing arguments hold, it follows that an international attempt to pressure Aung San Suu Kyi into speaking out is an exercise in futility. She cannot change the situation even if she spoke up (and why would she want to?). Fourth, I argue that alternative options (like sanctions) are unlikely to work as the political will needed to enforce them is missing. Since the West accords a lesser priority on democratization compared to their other commercial and geostrategic priorities (Tan 2016), I am pessimistic over the prospect of a genuine humanitarian outcome. That is, I expect the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims to continue. This paper explains why such a tragic outcome is likely.

To develop my arguments, the paper will proceed in four parts. The first part introduces the current humanitarian crisis of Rohingya Muslims. It provides the historical background of ethnic tensions and the status of the Rohingya within Myanmar. The second part explains the nature of political liberalization experience in Myanmar. It will address the constitutional innovations that the Burmese military deliberately introduced into the 2008 Constitution. This explains the legal/constitutional constrains on Aung San Suu Kyi. The third part addresses the interests of the key political actors (Aung San Suu Kyi, the Tatmadaw, the Sangha the Bamar people, as well as the United States and China). It shows how lopsided the domestic arena is against the Rohingya Muslims. The conclusion addresses the constraints placed by the lack of political will of foreign actors.

I. The Rohingya Muslims: the current humanitarian crisis and historical background

The current outbreak of violence against the Rohingya Muslims is conventionally understood to have started in October 2016 when fighters belonging to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked border guard posts in Rakhine State (an administrative district within Myanmar) killing 9 policemen.

The identity of the attackers is not certain, and it is doubtful that ARSA, whose former name is Harakah alYaqin[3] (or the “Faith Movement”), is actually in a position to wage an effective insurgency campaign (TD 2016a; SCMP 2016a). However, it is also understood that it is a matter of time before the persistent persecution of an ethnic minority will promote its radicalization and eventually an armed response. In August 2017, the Burmese state media reported that the ARSA launched a series of coordinated attacks on at least 20 police stations as well as on an army base killing 12 security officials (CNN 2017a). The August 2017 attacks suggest a growing militancy amongst the Rohingya. 

What is certain is that the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, used the two attacks as a pretext to retaliate by launching its own counter-insurgency campaign. It became quickly apparent that the military crackdown is directed against the Rohingya Muslims, whose interests, the ARSA represents.

From 2016-2018, there was widespread army-sponsored as well as local communal violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The Tatmadaw does not allow free media access to Rakhine state (BBC 2017b). The accounts gathered from Rohingya who fled the country speak of systemic violence. Mr. McKissick, the head of the UN Refugee Agency, stated that the Burmese military has been “killing men, shooting them, slaughtering children, raping women, burning and looting houses, forcing these people to cross the river [into Bangladesh]” (BBC 2016a).

Fig.2: Rohingyas after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border on September 1, 2017. Source: Mohammad, Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rohingya-crisis

The systemic nature of the atrocities committed constituted what a UN official declared as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” (CNN 2017b; BBC 2017c). Several Muslim nations including Turkey, Malaysia have gone further to characterize the systemic violence as genocide (BBC 2016b, CNN 2017c). That said, the UN chairman of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, Kofi Anan, who is also the former UN Secretary General, has gone on the record to downplay the accusation of “genocide” (BBC 2016b).

The official Burmese reaction is to deny that there were atrocities committed and attribute the reports of violence to exaggeration and fake news (CNN 2017d, CNN 2017e, BBC 2017d). When confronted with video and satellite evidence that Rohingya villages were burnt, the Tatmadaw insists it was a case of the Rohingya, whom they refer to as Bengalis, burning their own villages, presumably to make the state look bad (BBC 2017e). Myanmar sought to restrict access of international observers, including representatives from the UN, to Rakhine State (BBC 2017f). Aung San Suu Kyi in a September 2017 address also sought to downplay and deny the accusations of ethnic cleansing (BBC 2017d).

It is the international recursions of the Rohingya issue that generated the current spate of international attention in the first place. The first wave of retaliation, between October 2016 to August 2017, caused approximately 25,000 Rohingya refugees (CNN 2017a). The second wave of retaliation, post-August 2017, is much more extensive. Estimates of the number of Rohingya refugees who fled post-August 2017 range from the lower end of at least 123,000 (BBC 2017g, BBC2017d) to the high end of at least 615,000 (CNN 2017b; BBC 2017c) with some quoting a figure of at least 740,000 (BBC 2018a). When we include the approximately 400,000 who fled Myanmar in recent decades and are already in Bangladesh, the number affected is close to a million refugees. Bangladesh as a poor country could not afford to absorb such high numbers of refugees. Its official policy is to treat the Rohingya as illegal migrants and not accord them the legal status of refugees (BBC 2016a). According to Mr. McKissick:

Now it’s very difficult for the Bangladeshi government to say the border is open because this would further encourage the government of Myanmar to continue the atrocities and push them out until they have achieved their ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar… (BBC 2016a)

Bangladesh wants the Rohingya to return to Myanmar. It struck a deal with Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya in 2018 (BBC 2018a). There is skepticism over the feasibility of the repatriation deal. Under the deal, Myanmar promised to accept the return of 1500 refugees per week. As around 740,000 Rohingya have fled since October 2016, it will take 10 years before all can return (BBC 2018a). There are reasons to doubt the sincerity of the Burmese side here. The Rohingya villages have been destroyed, the communal tensions are not resolved, and the Rohingya have no guarantees of safety. Significantly, the legal documentation for the Rohingya to prove their citizenship does not exist (due to a 1982 law which I will discuss shortly). Furthermore, the Tatmadaw is reported to be militarizing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. According to Amnesty International, the Tatmadaw is engaged in a “military land grab” by building military camps in Rakhine state (BBC 2018b). Collectively, this suggests that the Burmese side is not sincere about implementing the repatriation deal.

How did all three sides (the Burmese state, the Arakan Buddhists, and Bangladesh) come to see the Rohingya Muslims as the “outsider” to be driven away? We start by recognizing the dominance of the many ethnic cleavages in the land of Burma (before the military junta renamed to Myanmar in 1989).[4] The dominant group in Burma is the Bamar people who compromise around 60% of the population and are concentrated in Southern flood plains of Burma. The other 40% of the population, the hill peoples with over 100 ethnicities, are concentrated in the Northern periphery of the country. Relations between the Bamar people and the hill peoples (the minorities) have been historically poor.[5] As a Burmese general puts it:

…the problem is that 60% percent of our people live on 40 percent of the land, and 60 percent of the land is home to only 40 percent of the people (Farrelly 2014:252)

The Tatmadaw, like many militaries, sought to justify its military rule (Barany 2012) using a version of the praetorian guard logic. In the case of Myanmar, its mission includes preserving the territorial integrity of Burma (Myoe 2014). In practice, this meant the army kept the nation together by systemically suppressing all other non-Bamar ethnic groups, especially when the latter sought succession. There was a program of Burmanisation, where the dominant Bamar group imposed its culture, religion, values upon the other ethnic groups (for example, the name change of the country from Burma to Myanmar). It is this policy that generates considerable ill will between the ethnic minorities (in the periphery) and the Bamar ethnic group (in the center). Under military rule, Burma suffered from the near-continuous civil war between the center (Bamar controlled) and the periphery (the hill peoples). One conventional estimate in registers that there is still about 100,000 armed personnel belonging to almost 40 non-state groups and organizations in Myanmar (Myoe 2014: 246).

This legacy of ill will becomes pertinent when we consider the land where the Rohingya have been residing until recently, the state of Rakhine. The historical name of Rakhine state is the Arakan state. It was an independent kingdom that was subsequently conquered by the Bamar kingdoms. The Arakanese Buddhists (the original inhabitants) see themselves as distinct from the Bamar even though they share the same faith. Like many other ethnic groups in Myanmar, they detested the Bamar majority (Popham 2016: 182).

The arrival of the British colonial rule in India changed the demographics of Arakan state. British India gave the Arakanese Buddhists a place to escape Bamar persecution. In the aftermath of the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-16, Britain captured the state of Arakan from Burma. The British colonial authorities felt the Arakan Buddhists (the natives) were too unproductive and preferred the industrious Muslims from British India (Popham 2016: 181). Specifically, the Muslims came from the Chittagon Hill Tracts in modern-day Bangladesh. This is why Popham refers to them as “Chittagonians” (Popham 2016: 183-4). This term is no longer in use. The British promoted the migration of Muslims from Bangladesh (which was then part of British India) into the Arakan state. The British gave the Muslim migrants arable land in Arakan (ibid). When the Arakan Buddhists returned from British India to British Arakan, they found their land taken over by the Arakan Muslims (Popham 2016: 182). Thus, initial British colonial rule reduced the numbers of Arakan Buddhists and increased the numbers of Arakan Muslims. The extra Arakan origins of Rohingya Muslims – provided we go far back enough in time – is part of the reason why many Burmese refuse to consider them Burmese citizens. Identifying them by their place of origin, the Chittagon Hill Tracts in modern-day Bangladesh, Popham refer to them as “Chittagonians” (Popham 2016: 183-4). The term “Chittagonians” is no longer in use.

There is a religious element to this ethnic conflict as well. The Arakan Muslims were influenced “by the Fara-i-id movement in Bengal that propagated the ideology of the Wahhabis of Arabia” (Aye Chan 2005: 9). This Wahhabis strand is associated with militancy and fundamentalism (Popham 2016: 182). The Rohingya Muslims were alienated from the Arakanese Buddhist and did not want to live under Buddhist rule (Popham 2016: 188). This manifests in the political aspirations of the Rohingya in three ways.

During the Second World War, the British armed the minorities group in Burma as a tactic to delay the potential Japanese invasion of British India. Unlike the other ethnic groups in Burma such as the Karen and the Kachin, who when armed attacked the Japanese, the armed Rohingya, known as the “V Force”, attacked the Arakan Buddhists in Rakhine. According to Popham (2016: 186-8), The V Force essentially forced Arakan Buddhists to flee from those areas in Northern Rakhine where Arakan Muslims are dominant to Southern Rakhine where the Arakan Buddhists are dominant. In blunt language, the Rohingya through the V force articulated a desire for self-rule by carrying out ethnic cleansing. In doing so, it reinforced among the Arakan Buddhists a fear of the Arakan Muslims.

After the Second World War, the Arakan Muslims in northern Rakhine sought to join East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh) instead of Burma. It was rejected by both the British and the new Pakistan (Popham 2016: 188-9). The Arakan Muslims then sought an Arakan homeland within Burma and to be recognized as one of the nationalities of Burma. It was around at this time that the Arakan Muslims began to use the name “Rohingya” to identify themselves. The name was meant to denote their status as one of the ethnic groups within Burma (Popham 2016: 184-5; TD 2016b).

The Burmese polity rejecting the citizenship claims referred to “Bengalis” to emphasize their foreign origin and non-citizen status.[6] When the Burmese state rejected Rohingya claims to citizenship, the Arakan Muslims responded with an armed uprising against the Burmese state (Popham 2016: 189). To be fair to them, the new state Burma is an artificial construct; many ethnic groups launched their own armed insurrections against the state at the same time too.

During the Pakistani civil war, the Rohingya backed the West Pakistani side. When that war ended with the formation of Bangladesh (that is former East Pakistan), the Rohingya end up with a new neighbor that is hostile. As Popham (2016:191) observed: “Today Bangladesh treats those who fled into Bangladesh to escape Burmese persecution just as badly as do the Burmese.”

Under Ne Win military rule, Burma passed the Citizenship Act of 1982. The Act recognized eight ethnic groups as national races as well as 135 ethnic minorities. The eight national races are the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Mon, the Arakan, and the Bamar. They settled the country before the First Anglo Burmese war (before 1826). Each has its own state within Burma. Members of these eight ethnic groups, known colloquially as the big eight, are considered full citizens. Significantly, the Arakan national race refers to Arakan Buddhists and not the Arakan Muslims (the Rohingya). 

The Citizenship Act also grants “associate citizenship” to those groups who arrived in Burma after the First Anglo Burmese but before the independence of Burma in 1948. The Rohingya meet this criterion (SCMP 2016b). Associate citizenship grants the rights of residence and to vote but not the right to participate in governance. The Rohingya reject this status as they seek full citizenship as well as autonomy. This meant the Rohingya’s demands are at the expense of the Arakan Buddhists living in the same land (Popham 2016:192).

Finally, there was a round of violence against the Rohingya in 2012 that displaced at least 140,000 Muslims in Rakhine. The transitional government under Thein Sein took the side of the Arakan Buddhist (Popham 2016:176-7).

Fig.3: Armed Arakanese walking away from a Burmese village in flames while a soldier stands by (June 2012). Source: Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/22/burma-end-ethnic-cleansing-rohingya-muslims

The forgoing historical context spells out how the Rohingya alienated all major factions within Burma and would-be allies outside of the country. The Bamar majority does not like the ethnic minorities. The military junta justified its role by persecuting ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya. None of the other major ethnic groups within Burma, who are fighting against the Bamar majority and the Tatmadaw, see the Rohingya as indigenous. The local Arakan Buddhists are in a feud with the Rohingya for the dominance in Rakhine state. The foreign power that could have provided shelter and assistance, Bangladesh, is also hostile to them. The Rohingya are marginalized and persecuted in Burma. As we shall see in the next section, the political liberalization of Burma, post-2008, exacerbates the political vulnerability of the Rohingya.

II. The side effects of the political liberalization in Myanmar

The response of Aung San Suu Kyi to the Rohingya issue is striking for her studied silence. Her non-commitment is conspicuous because she is the State Counselor (akin to the country’s leader), the Foreign Minister, and the most recognized face of Myanmar to the outside world. She avoided journalists and press conferences (BBC 2016a). She avoided attending international events such as the UN 2017 assembly meeting where she knew the issue would be raised and thus force a response from her (CNN 2017f), even though as the Foreign Minister of a small country, it is arguably part of her job to attend. In September 2017, after a year of international criticism of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first official statement on the Rohingya issue. In her speech, spoken in English, she attributed the violence to terrorism (blaming the ARSA) and claimed there was misinformation and fake news over the scale and extent of the violence (BBC 2017d, CNN 2017e). Several of her claims have been factually contested (CNN 2017d).

What is pertinent in her official stance, however, are her two claims: a) she avoided using the label “Rohingya” and b) she characterized the current situation as an anti-terror campaign. With the first claim, she is adopting the view of the majority in Myanmar that the Rohingya are not native to the country. With the second claim, she is rejecting the international claim that it is a humanitarian crisis. Instead, she is adopting the view of the Tatmadaw that this is a national security issue.

It might be the case that Aung San Suu Kyi is merely ignorant about the state of affairs in Rakhine. Popham notes that Aung San Suu Kyi is a poor manager. Until the age of 40, she showed little inclination towards politics. It was the 8-8-88 revolution that catapulted her into the political life in Burma. She was put under house arrest and spent 15 years in near solitary isolation. She relies on a small group of trusted aides and fails to see the need for bureaucratic support staff (Popham 2016: 245). She does not even rely on the talent within her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). She was so disorganized that during a visit to Britain, the British side led by example, in a futile attempt to nudge her towards using more professional support staff (ibid).

Yet, the political context suggested it is not just her personality or her managerial style. If the lack of information is the reason, she could have conducted fact-finding of her own. We know that she rebuffed suggestions by the UN Special Representative to Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, to visit Rakhine state to verify the violence for herself (BBC 2017h). Her legendary stubbornness, for which she was praised in the West when it was in defiance of the military junta, is now directed against the international community (BBC 2017h). For example, consider the verdict of Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the UN, and a former member of the Advisory Board for the Committee for Implementation of the Recommendations on Rakhine State.[7] As the Board member, he raised with her the issue of two Reuters journalists who were imprisoned while doing their jobs in Rakhine state. Aung San Suu Kyi was “furious” with Richardson for raising an item not on the committee agenda. Richardson resigned from the board arguing that its purpose is to whitewash the governmental atrocities (CNN 2018; NYT 2018). He further accused Aung San Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership” on this issue, even though he is (or rather was) a personal friend of her (Reuters 2018). A third circumstance suggests Aung San Suu Kyi’s behavior is deliberate. This is, after all, not the first time she responded in this noncommittal manner. Back in 2012, when there was also an outbreak of the anti-Rohingya violence that generated at least 1000,000 refugees, she refused to speak out then too (BBC 2017h).

What we have is a situation where Aung San Suu Kyi consistently acted against the explicit recommendations of the international community. The fact she resisted pressure to fact-find and speak out for the Rohingya and finally spoke up against the Rohingya (in September 2017) is telling. This suggests that it is not that she does not know, rather it is more likely that she does not want to know. This begs the question: under what conditions might a leader choose not to speak out on an issue which gathered international attention and condemnation? I argue the actual distribution of power within Myanmar constrains Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom of maneuver. To understand how, we need to go back to the nature of the political liberalization in Myanmar.

The political liberalization in Myanmar caught many observers of Burma by surprise (Apsinall & Farrelly 2014). After all, Myanmar endured a long period of military rule that shows a willingness to crush all democratic opposition, notably in the crushing of the 8-8-88 people uprising and the 2007 Saffron (monk-led) uprising. In one of the better theoretical articulation of the transition logic, Slater (2014) argued that it is precisely the right moment for such regimes to launch political reforms. The military junta was at the height of its power, having crushed all opposition to its rule, and thus able to control the reforms process to shape its post-transition status. Furthermore, persistent ethnic conflict gives the military reasonable confidence that its post-transition privileges will be respected by the post-transition elite. Unlike comparable military juntas in Southeast Asia, its ethnic minorities do not seek to capture the state. Rather, they seek succession. This meant that the civilian elite can concentrate on pleasing its constituents in the center while leaving the army free reign in the periphery (Slater 2014).

The military junta rewrote Burma’s pre-2008 constitution to allow it to essentially rule without governing. The commander-in-chief of the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, is the head of the Military Council whose authority overrides the Parliament. It has the authority to declare martial law and to dissolve Parliament. Both the speakers of the Upper and Lower House in the parliament are former generals, with pro-military views. A full 25% of the seats in the Parliament are reserved for the army alone. On top of this, the Tatmadaw create its own political party called, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to add even more representation for the military in the Parliament. Since any change in the constitution requires 75% of the Members of Parliament to approve, the Tatmadaw acts as the veto player on any future constitutional change (Myoe 2014).

Fig.4: A soldier stands guard in downtown Lashio, Northern Shan State of Myanmar, on May 29, 2013. Source: Ye Aung Thu, AFP, Getty Images. https://www.csis.org/analysis/armed-forces-and-democratization-myanmar-why-us-military-should-engage-tatmadaw

At the operational level, the army controls three key ministries: Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs. The Police reports to the army and not to the President or the State Counselor. The Parliament has no say over the appointment of the commander-in-chief, no oversight over the military budget, and the army personnel policies. These built-in safeguards in the 2008 Constitution are extraordinary and serve to guarantee the Tatmadaw’s autonomy (Myoe 2014).

The 2008 Constitution also contains the infamous Clause 59(f) which prevents any Burmese citizen, whose spouse or children have a foreign passport, from being the President of Myanmar.  This clause was designed to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from assuming the position of President. To work around this clause, the NLD government created a position of State Counselor just for her. Since the President position was filled by Htin Kyaw, who is a political ally of her, it is understood that Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of the NLD government. However, Htin Kyaw retired this year and Myint Swe from the USDP (the pro-military party) is now the acting president. At the time of writing, the new incoming President, Win Myint, is from the NLD and is an Aung San Suu Kyi loyalist.

This Constitutional setup ensures that Aung San Suu Kyi is legally unable to act on the Rohingya. The Tatmadaw can declare an ethnic region (such as in Rakhine) a national security issue, which it has, and impose direct military rule. The Parliament has no say on over this. The ruling party, NLD, cannot exercise oversight over the army. The current President is from the army. Aung San Suu Kyi as the State Counsellor, a position that is not even a formal part of the 2008 Constitution, has no legal authority to enforce a change.

The lack of actual legal authority only partially explains the reticence of Aung San Suu Kyi to speak up about the persecution of the Rohingya initially. It does not explain why she chooses to take an anti-Rohingya stance eventually. To understand the later, it is necessary to consider the imperatives of key actors as well as outside actors. This is addressed in the second half of the article. 


[1] Burmese names do not follow Western conventions. They do not use family names and given names may vary from one to four. Aung San is the leader associated with Burmese independence. His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, is the current leader of Myanmar.

[2] Ronald Watson also runs the website: www.dictatorwatch.org, last assessed 1/10/2018.

[3] An alternative name for the group is “Harakat al-Yaqeen”.

[4] The name of the country has been politicized by the military junta (SLORC) who rename it from Burma to Myanmar in the 1990s. Follow the general convention, I use Burma to refer to the polity before 1989 and Myanmar after 1989 in this paper.

[5] For an overview of ethnic relations, see Farrelly 2014.

[6] Since the term “Rohingya” is modern and also the term widely used in the Western media, I refer to this group as the Rohingya following English conventions; it does not necessarily take a stance on their citizenship status. I use the term Arakan Muslims to refer to the Rohingya Muslims before they self-identified as Rohingya.

[7] The Board is set up to implement the recommendations of the fact-finding commission headed by Kofi Annan.


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