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

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

*This article is published in a two-part series. This is the second 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.


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. 

III. The political imperatives of key actors

To understand the contemporary status quo in Burmese politics, we want to consider the motivations of the key actors. This section addresses the political calculations of four actor groups: i) the West (mainly the US), ii) China (and minor regional actors), iii) the Sangha, the Arakan Buddhists, and the Tatmadaw, and iv) Aung San Suu Kyi herself and the NLD party. Here we want to understand why the West and China accepted this state of affairs (this will be important when we considered the policy options available) and why Aung San Suu Kyi preferred to take the army’s side.[1]

1. The West and the US

The political liberalization that Myanmar experienced is a ‘pacted-transition’. The political reforms were not meant to create genuine democracy, only the appearance of one. Behind the civilian politicians and the multiparty elections lies the real autonomy of the Tatmadaw. Why, then, did the West, and I focus on the United States here, in effect, accept a transition that stops fall short of democracy? Since the US plays a leading role with its sanctions regime that started in 1988 and was maintained by every administration since the presidency of Obama, I will focus mainly on the US as representative of the West. I argue that the US does not value both Myanmar by itself and democracy promotion enough to push for actual democratization. To unpack this claim, the selectorate view on aid-giving is useful.  

The selectorate theory (Bueno de Mesquita. et al. 2003) argues that leaders, regardless of regime type, are motivated by the imperative of political survival. This means that the leadership has to keep its key supporters, known as the winning coalition, loyal. It achieves this by using a mix of private goods and public goods as rewards. The exact mix depends on the size of the winning coalition and is an indirect function of regime type. Applied to aid-giving, the selectorate perspective rejects the conventional view of aid-giving as an exercise in altruism. Instead, it treats aid as a means for donors to purchase policy concessions.

The policy concessions sought can be of strategic or commercial nature. As an example of a strategic concession, consider the nature of American aid to Pakistan after the 9-11 attacks. The US development assistance is “buying” Pakistan’s support in US counterterrorism. Likewise, Chinese aid concentrates on African countries, such as Angola, that have the minerals resources/oil that the Chinese economy needs. The selectorate perspective helps us understand cases of aid-giving where the recipients are of strategic and commercial value to the donors. In cases where the recipients have little in strategic and/or commercial value to donors, Tan (2020) notes that there exists the possibility that donors may prefer democratization instead. That explains the pattern of behavior we observe, that although the West routinely articulates support and commitment to democracy promotion in its rhetoric, in practice, democracy promotion is a low priority. In Myanmar’s case, Bertil Linter, an expert on the geopolitics of the region, reported the following wry observation by a senior US diplomat in Yangon made in 1989:

Since there are no US bases and very little strategic interest, Burma [Myanmar] is one place where the United States has the luxury of living up to its principles. (Asian Times Online 2011).  

During the Cold War, the US gradually lost interest in Southeast Asia, including Burma, after the end of the Vietnam War. The repression and the human rights abuses by the military junta contrast sharply with the saint-like image of Aung Sang Suu Kyi. This ensured the steady attention of international human rights activists. Other than the domain of human rights, Myanmar, precisely because it is not that important to the US, was something of a “boutique issue” (Fiori & Passeri 2015: 692). This allowed the US to maintain long-running sanctions on Myanmar but not to give the country special emphasis.

It was after the economic rise of China and the extension of its influence into Southeast Asia, including Myanmar, that prompted a change in the US strategic thinking in the 2010s for Asia. The signature policy initiated during the Obama presidency came to be known as the “Pivot to Asia” (Clinton 2011). This pivot provided an opportunity for the US to rethink its approach in Myanmar. Instead of using sanctions as a symbol of the international condemnation of the regime, the lifting of sanctions might be used to persuade the regime to reform.

Following significant political reforms by the Thein Sein government, such as the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the US reciprocated with diplomatic rewards. The first outreach was the visit by Jim Webb, a US senator from the Democratic Party and the first senior US official, to meet with the reclusive Burmese leader since 2009. This was followed by the visit by Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State in 2011 (Popham 2016: 90). The culmination was the visit by President Obama in 2012.

Fig.1: President Obama in Yangon, Myanmar, with Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2012. Source: Soe Zeya Tun, Reuters.

The 2012 visit by President Obama has several political ramifications. By rewarding Thein Sein government with the first official visit by any US President to that country, the US was lending legitimacy to Thein Sein political reforms. The material rewards were also substantive. During that visit, President Obama relaxed sanctions on Myanmar, and offered US aid worth over US$ 170 million. He also offered more financial support and aid conditional on further democratization (US Department of State 2015). Additionally, the US had also lifted the ban on US foreign investment in Myanmar before the visits.

The lifting of sanctions and the resumption of foreign aid is significant. The US was careful to use language that its resumption of foreign aid to Myanmar was conditional on further reforms in Burma (US Department of State 2015). Such language, conditional support, and the “suspension” of sanctions were also adopted by several Western donors including Britain (Popham 2016: 125-6). However, this is not enough for Popham. He argues that once the sanctions are lifted, resuming them in the face of a future infraction “would be a major political challenge (Popham 2016: 125). Thus, one might conclude that the US gave away its best bargaining chip against the military junta.

Why did the US reward the Thein Sein government so quickly? The international reason is that the US wanted to wean Myanmar off Chinese patronage. The strategic value of getting Myanmar onto the Western side and its “enormous untapped market make (sic) it a potential prize” (Kurlantzick 2014: 21) for the Obama administration. The domestic reason is that the Obama administration needed a “win” in Asia. The Obama administration expended “significant political capital restarting relations with the country and convincing Congress to go along…” (Kurlantzick 2014: 21). The subsequent reforms in Myanmar, as it turns out, provided the symbolic victory the Obama presidency sought. It did not matter that 2012 was also the year of the first recent outbreak of violence against the Rohingya (in the regional capital Sittwe). This helps to explain why the US was willing to engage with the regime even as ethnic conflict and human rights abuses persist. The US was signaling that such violence, while regrettable, need not stand in the way of warming US-Burmese relations.

This state of affairs reveals that Western donors are willing to accept political liberalization without democratic consolidation. Superficial political reforms that result in mere multiparty elections, but not democratic consolidation, are enough to satisfy donors’ demands for change. I emphasize that this is consistent with existing empirical patterns in aid-giving (Bueno de Mesquita and Smith 2009a; Lancaster 2007; Cooley 2015; Young 1999; Bueno de Mesquita and Downs 2006).  The humanitarian plight of the Rohingya is something the West is willing to overlook so long as they get their political liberalization that they are willing to pay for in aid. Put another way, donors are not willing to pay for the end of persecution of the Rohingya in the way they are willing to fund political liberalization in Myanmar.

2. China and the other regional actors

Most regional actors, especially the states in the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) have had little interest over the Rohingya issue. The ASEAN states advocate the principle of non-interference into the domestic affairs of member states (of which Myanmar is one). Since many of the ASEAN states are themselves authoritarian and vulnerable to outside powers, it is easy to see this advocacy as self-serving. Thus, for example, Cambodia declared the Rohingya issue to be the internal affairs of Myanmar alone (TD 2017a). To the extent that ASEAN states have an interest, their concern is to systemically turn Rohingya from their borders and basically ignore the problem (TD 2017b; TD 2015a; TD 2015b). That is, they generally do not welcome Rohingya refugees. The other major regional actor that exerts some influence is India. India chooses to be neutral and refrains from criticizing Myanmar (TD 2017c; TD 2017d). India has also sought to deport its Rohingya refugees (TD 2017c). This subsection will, therefore, discuss the remaining major actor that has great influence over Myanmar: China.

From the Chinese perspective, Myanmar provided some strategic and commercial value, certainly more so than the case for the US. Myanmar’s strategic location as a potential route for Chinese imports of oil and natural gas provides one solution to its “Malacca Dilemma” (Fiori & Passeri 2015: 681). Since both the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan are landlocked, Myanmar is the natural outlet for their products (Asia Times Online 2011).

During the period when Burma was under sanctions from the West and prior to the start of political liberalization in Myanmar, the military junta sought and received Chinese patronage. This gave China an outsized influence over Myanmar. The Chinese used their leverage to extract valuable economic concessions from Myanmar. For example, Northern Myanmar was heavily integrated into Yunnan’s economy (Fiori & Passeri 2015: 689) and the terms of the controversial Myitsone Dam project favored the Chinese side (Chan 2017: 6). However, they appeared to have overplayed their hand. They underestimated both the resentment of the Burmese public of Chinese economic penetration and the desire by the military junta to be free from Chinese dependency (Sun 2012a; Sun 2012b).

By switching its alignment from China to the US and by meeting the US demands for political liberalization, Myanmar bought for itself more room for maneuver. Since then, Chinese diplomacy has been more moderate and cautious towards Myanmar (Sun 2012a). It started to conduct systemic public diplomacy towards the Burmese public which it ignored previously (Chan 2017). China also maintains ties to ethnic minorities that are in conflict with the Burmese state. These groups include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) (Myoe 2016). Ties with these groups give China coercive leverage, should relations between the two countries deteriorate.

Since China has its own issues with the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, it is not sympathetic to the Rohingya Muslims as refugees either. It followed the Burmese line and avoided the term “Rohingya”. It provided diplomatic cover for Myanmar by exercising its veto power at the UN Security Council on behalf of Myanmar (TD 2017e; TD 2017f). The Chinese also took an active role in mediating between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a three-step plan to resolve the crisis (TD 2017g). The first phase requires the Burmese military to hold a ceasefire and restore order. The second phase is for both Myanmar and Bangladesh to hold bilateral talks. The third phase is for the international community to help rebuild the Rakhine state.

The feasibility of the plan is in doubt as it is not clear if the Tatmadaw is interested in a ceasefire. Presumably, China seeks to win Myanmar back into its sphere of influence. If so, China logically has no political interest in alienating the Tatmadaw. If the West were to re-impose sanctions, it would alienate the Tatmadaw and push Myanmar back into China’s corner. This means China is effectively serving as the exit option for the key actors in the Burmese government.

3. The Sangha, the Arakan Buddhists, and the Tatmadaw  

This subsection addresses the worldview of the Burmese domestic actors, leaving Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party for the next subsection.

The majority in Myanmar follows the Theravada branch of Buddhism (one of the two main schools within Buddhism). Here, the focus is on the worldview of the Sangha or the Buddhist monastic community (the monks). According to Popham (2016), a distinctive aspect of Theravada Buddhism is a sense of cosmological decline. The Buddha is said to have predicted that Buddhist teachings will last 5000 years before it fades from human memory. The Sangha is aware that Buddhism is now 2500 years old and thus past the highwater mark of their religion. They fear a steady decline in their faith. They are inclined to worry about and act upon threats to their community.

They are consistent in their willingness to defend their faith. For example, in the pre-Burma past, the role of the Sangha is to legitimate their King who governs the People. The People provide alms to the Sangha who bless them in turn. The Sangha opposed the colonial overlords- the British- because they removed the position of the Burmese King, and thus broke the triangular relationship (Popham 2016: 208).

The Sangha was also willing to challenge the Tatmadaw when its interests were threatened (Popham 2016: 212). When the military junta sharply increased the petrol prices, it affected the ability of the laity to give alms to the monks. This prompted the Sangha to protest against the military regime. The subsequent military crackdown on the Sangha came to be known as the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The political liberalization of Myanmar introduced new threats to the Sangha. New political parties were created in order to contest elections in 2010. Some of these, such as Arakanese Nationalist Party, appeal to specific ethnic minorities. This meant that ethnic minorities who were previously denied voting rights were suddenly in a position to shape the governance of the country. This was seen as threatening the dominance of the Bamar ethnic group who were predominantly Buddhists. Of the minorities, the Muslims were perceived as the most fecund, and hence most threatening to the Buddhist majority that the Sangha represents.[2] However, this is factually wrong since Muslims compromise around 5% of the population in a country where 90 % of the people are Buddhist (Popham 2016: 352). Nevertheless, the perception that Muslims are numerous, alien, and radical remains widespread.

This perception fuels Buddhist nationalism. It found expression in both politics and civil society. Political parties, for instance the National Development Party (NDP), started to incorporate as part of their party platform, the defense of Buddhism (Popham 2016: 355). Civil society groups with explicit nationalism, such as the Association to Protect Race and Religion (better known by its Buddhist acronym of Ma Ba Tha) started to emerge. Buddhist radicals such as the Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who has a history of inciting violence against the Rohingya, started to flourish. Ashin Wirathu claimed to have started the ‘969 movement’ with the goal of boycotting Muslim business and not to promote violence against the Muslims (Popham 2016: 206). Outside of Myanmar, he has been characterized as the “Buddhist bin Laden” (Popham 2016: xvi, 353).

A group of people in a room

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Fig.2: Ashin Wirathu as clicked in 2013. Source: Adam Dean, The New York Times.

From the view of the extremist elements in the Sangha (such as Ashin Wirathu), the defense of the Sangha shapes their political preferences. Those parties/candidates who can defend the faith are preferred compared to those who are secular or cosmopolitan. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has a Western background and espouses cosmopolitan values, is less desirable compared to Buddhist nationalist candidates. These monks and their lay supporters preferred the military party, USDP, rather than the Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. In a telling quote by Ashin Wirathu, who endorsed Thein Sein (with his military, pro-Buddhist background) for the presidential elections, he said of Aung San Suu Kyi:   

 She doesn’t know about Burma and if she became the President, the governance will be in chaos. Racial and religious conflict would deteriorate (Popham 2016: 218).

A further complication lies in the local conditions in Rakhine state itself. Rakhine state is the second poorest state in Myanmar. The feud between the Arakan Buddhists and the Arakan Muslims (Rohingya) over limited resources intensified after the 2010 elections. Since both sides are allowed to vote as a result of liberalization, the Arakan Buddhists saw the numerous Rohingya as a threat. In the capital of Rakhine state, Sittwe, the ratio of Rohingya Muslim to the Arakan Buddhists was almost even (Popham 2016: 176). The Arakan Buddhists attacked their own Muslim neighbors in 2012, thus displacing 140,000 Rohingyas. The Thein Sein government took the opportunity to carry favor with the Buddhists by siding with them. The government annulled the temporary identification cards of the Rohingya and stripped them of the right to vote (Popham 2016:353-4). After that round of ethnic cleansing, the demographics in Sittwe shifted in favor of the Arakan Buddhists (Popham 2016:177). With the electoral marginalization of the Rohingya, nationalistic parties such as the Arakan Nationalist Party were free to advocate only the interests of the Arakan Buddhists.

Finally, there is the influence of the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw saw itself as the defender of the country’s territorial integrity. It has a history of suppressing ethnic minorities in the periphery. Its brutality is one of the reasons for the near-continuous civil war in Burma for much of its modern history. It treats the Rohingya crisis as a national security issue (and not a humanitarian one) and implements counterinsurgency against the so-called terrorist groups. The Tatmadaw’s reaction was certainly harsh but is not that different from its treatment of the other ethnic groups which it also suppresses. The difference here is that while the other ethnic minorities usually have a foreign power to provide support and shelter, the Rohingya lack such a patron. As a consequence, the violence suffered by the Rohingya is worse.

Back in 2012, the target of the Tatmadaw was the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) which is now defunct. The current target of the 2016 counterterrorism campaign is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). These are weak organizations that are not a match for the Tatmadaw.  Some allege that the terrorism pretext is proof that the Tatmadaw was planning the genocide of the Rohingya all along (TD 2017h). That, however, is a strong allegation that is hard to prove. We do know that after Myanmar signed the repatriation deal with Bangladesh, the Tatmadaw has been building new military bases in the border (Amnesty International 2018). The systemic pattern of land-grabs implies that the Tatmadaw seeks to control both the natural resources in the area (CETRI 2013) and to deny the return of Rohingya from overseas. It suggests that the goal of the Tatmadaw is ethnic cleansing.

Bertil Linter, a noted commenter on border politics, has also suggested that the Rohingya issue may be deliberately exploited by the Tatmadaw as a way to hurt Aung San Suu Kyi politically (The Week 2012). If Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out on behalf of the Rohingya, she risks alienating her political support within the country. If she does not, she risks alienating her foreign supporters.

Whereas the Sangha is advocating a boycott of Muslims, the Tatmadaw is in a position to implement a more violent policy. From the Tatmadaw perspective, escalating the Rohingya issue has the additional benefit of increasing the political pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi.

4. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy

We now turn to the considerations of Aung San Suu Kyi as a political actor. Here, the focus is on her style of leadership and the electoral politics. Part of the problem is that the West has placed unrealistic expectations upon her. She is seen as a human rights icon and yet few actually got past the image to know her character. As Popham phrased it, “she was world famous yet almost unknown” (Popham 2016: 227). She seems to resent the Western expectations which she did not ask for and does not care about (ibid: 248). For instance, she routinely rejects requests for interviews from the media.

Aung San Suu Kyi may have an authoritarian streak (Popham 2016: 360). She is convinced of her political destiny to lead Burma. Popham describes her idiosyncratic, rigid personality as a “queenliness” (Popham 2016: 228). As the daughter of Aung Sang, the leader of independent Burma that was assassinated, she is widely revered within the country. This means that she was catapulted into the leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD). As its leader, she failed to develop institutions within the party. She also expelled longstanding party members who questioned her authority (Popham 2016: 360). In an unflattering observation, Popham characterized Aung San Suu Kyi thus:

She (Aung San Suu Kyi) does not delegate. She has no obvious successor. She has shown no interest in or capacity for sharing power in the party: it’s all about her (Popham 2016: xxxiii-xxxiv).

As a politician, Aung San Suu Kyi’s first priority is to win elections. This means pandering to Burmese public opinion. It bears emphasis that the Burmese public holds negative views about Muslims and does not consider the Rohingya as citizens. Even though the Sangha and Tatmadaw and the military junta under Thein Sein have been pushing a political narrative, it is one that found ready roots in Burmese public opinion. To underscore the narrative of the Rohingya as foreigners, the Burmese state prefers to refer to Rohingya as “Bengalis” (NYT 2017a). In her public appearances, Aung San Suu Kyi deliberately chooses not to use the term Rohingya. This remains true even in her latest public statement on the issue on 4/1/2018.

After the 2008 constitution, Myanmar held three elections in 2010, 2012, and 2015. The 2010 rigged election was boycotted by the NLD and the junta’s USDP “won” the majority of seats. The NLD participated in both the 2012 by-elections and the 2015 general elections.

The NLD campaign strategy has two aspects. First, Farrelly (201) noted that the NLD won the 1990 national election but lost the ethnic vote. To compensate and to win ethnic votes, the traditional NLD campaign strategy is to ally with the local ethnic parties (Farrelly 2014: 259). Furthermore, for the 2012 by-election, the NLD has another logistical incentive to look for proxy. It was suppressed by the military junta for many years. It needed some time to set up its grassroots representation, and in this case, using existing local ethnic-based parties yields a quicker payoff. Second, the NLD came under political pressure from Buddhist nationalists and monks. It responded by purging the party of Muslim candidates (Popham 2016: 356-7).

We know the NLD won by a landslide in both elections. Yet, it also meant that there is no political representative in the ruling party willing to speak up for the Rohingya within the national Parliament. Likewise, due to the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya in 2012, there was no representation from local ethnic parties in the local Rakhine government either. Standard political science literature, Slater (2014:176) notes, is prone to treat the democratization of the authoritarian regime as a way to ameliorate ethnic conflict within a country. However, in this situation, the political liberalization in Myanmar exacerbated the political vulnerability of the Rohingya.

IV. Conclusion

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, despite her position as the de-facto leader of the country, is constrained on multiple fronts. Legally, the 2008 Constitution does not grant her legal authority to overrule the Tatmadaw. She is undoubtedly aware of Myanmar’s long decades of military rule, of the real threat of a military coup. The need to win the general elections for her party made her sensitive to Burmese public opinion. The latter, thanks to a narrative that ostracizes foreigners and minorities, ensures no domestic political support for the Rohingya.

Rather than speaking up for human rights, she behaved as we would expect from a politician seeking office. She made another public statement on the Rohingya issue on 4/1/2018. In consistency with her previous behavior, she acknowledged in vague language some humanitarian concerns in Rakhine without either blaming the Tatmadaw or using the name Rohingya.

To use the language of the selectorate theory, Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader is more concerned with her winning coalition, the Bamar majority. The Rohingya are a minority with no voting rights under the current citizenship laws. They are not part of the selectorate and are thus politically expendable. The persecution of the Rohingya generates private rewards for the Tatmadaw (in the form of land grabs) and the Arakan Buddhists (control over Rakhine state). Simultaneously, it satisfies the preferences of the Burmese majority. To the extent that the persecution is understood as a defense of the Sangha- even though this is rejected by the West- it is a public good. Put simply, it is not in the political interests of Aung San Suu Kyi to protect the Rohingya.

To explore whether international action will result in a humanitarian outcome for the Rohingya, I will consider two counterfactuals and three scenarios.[3]

In the first counterfactual, the West could, of course, ratchet up its international condemnation and even ply more diplomatic pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi. After all, the UN has been vocal in its criticism of Myanmar precisely because it is a marginal country with little diplomatic allies. In the first scenario, Aung San Suu Kyi could speak up, lose political support from the Burmese and the Tatmadaw would ignore her and carry on its military campaign anyway. In the second scenario, Aung San Suu Kyi would resist foreign pressure, reap the rewards of being a nationalist, and being seen to be defending her country against foreigners. Given the logic of political survival, it is obvious which of the two scenarios is more likely.

In the second counterfactual, the West could apply a new round of sanctions on Myanmar.[4] The United States and the EU have placed sanctions targeting key individuals in the Burmese regime. This includes sanctions on General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw (SCMP 2017) and on Maung Maung Soe, the general in charge of the military operations in Western Myanmar (BBC 2017c). The problem here is that the sanctions, even if properly enforced, do not substantively hurt the revenue of the Tatmadaw. The defence budget is constitutionally protected. Even if the state is under economic sanctions, it will prioritize defence spending. The Tatmadaw also has an independent source of revenue other than the official budget. The four key extractive industries in Myanmar are in jade, ruby, teak, and opium smuggling. All four find their outlets in the Chinese market (TD 2015c).  The leaders of the Tatmadaw can sidestep US sanctions by relying on Chinese patronage, which is what they have historically done. Since the strategic interest of the US is in weaning Myanmar away from China, political support for more sanctions on Myanmar is unlikely.

Furthermore, it is not clear that the political will to enforce sanctions is present. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN and an outspoken defender of international norms, supports sanctions on Myanmar. However, she announced her intention to resign recently (BBC  2018c). Given the volatility in the Trump administration and the appointment of John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Adviser, the US can be expected to focus more on Iran and North Korea instead of Myanmar.[5] Ironically, it is the Burmese role in North Korea’s evasion of international sanctions that got Myanmar onto the US radar in the first place (Reuters 2017). Therefore, it should not be surprising that reports are emerging that the US is not fully enforcing the sanctions on Myanmar (Politico 2018).

The implications here are pessimistic. More international pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi or Myanmar is unlikely to result in a humanitarian outcome. The imperatives of key local actors favor the continued persecution of the Rohingya. These incentive structures can be manipulated, but the West should realistically determine the price it is willing to bear in order to change them. If the West wants to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya, it has to stop looking for actors who will act against their own political interests. In other words, the West has to stop looking for heroes, for there are none.

[1] Part of this article draws from material that is further developed in my forthcoming book on aid and democracy promotion (Tan 2020).

[2] The perception that Muslims were more fecund, and a threat appeared as a justification for Buddhists upon Muslim attacks in the recent outbreak of violence in Sri Lanka too.

[3] I discount two other counterfactuals: i) a military intervention into Myanmar, and ii) a massive increase in foreign aid as a bribe to Bangladesh or Myanmar, due to the lack of political support by the international community. 

[4] As far as I know, none of the Muslim dominant states that criticized Myanmar have implemented sanctions on it. Their actions do not match their rhetoric.

[5] John Bolton has since resigned from the Trump Administration.

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