Myanmar: The Rohingya, The Army, And Aung San Suu Kyi

The Myanmar Army has cleared itself of all blame related to the Rohingya crisis after an internal investigation, further denying claims that soldiers killed any Rohingya people or abused any of their women.  The Rohingya, an ethnic minority in the country, have been fleeing to Bangladesh for safety since the attacks on their villages began earlier this year.  The army’s so-called ‘clearance operations’ were supposed to have ended on the 5th of September; however, BBC correspondents have reported evidence of continued purges.  Myanmar State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced severe criticism from the international community due to her apparent inaction during this crisis, but many in the region recognize that the Myanmar constitution does not give her enough power to end the suffering.

The Rohingya are one of several ethnic minority groups in Myanmar.  Consisting of roughly one million people, they represent the largest percentage of Muslims in the country.  Myanmar, a primarily Buddhist country, denied them citizenship and excluded them from the 2014 census.  After Rohingya militants attacked several police posts in August, Myanmar’s military responded with force. 288 villages were destroyed, forcing the Rohingya people to flee the country.  Over 600,000  have reached refugee camps in Bangladesh.  While the military has cleared itself of any wrongdoing, the refugees have accused soldiers of mass rape and murder.  Such accounts have caused the United Nations to label this crisis as ethnic cleansing.

The international community now looks to Aung San Suu Kyi for a solution.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”  While Myanmar was under military rule, she consistently fought for democracy in the country.  Her party, the National League for Democracy, finally took power in 2015.  While the constitution prevents her from taking the office of President, a role was created for her so that she may represent the people on an international scale.  As State Counselor, she is the de-facto leader of Myanmar.

Now that the Rohingya crisis has escalated, many feel betrayed.  It is hard to believe that a symbol of democracy and peace could be involved in such chaos.  The truth is far more complicated.  According to the Myanmar constitution, she is virtually powerless against her own military. The military controlled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011.  During that span, it imposed martial law and arrested several advocates for democracy, including Aung San Suu Kyi.  In 2008, the military drafted a new constitution for Myanmar that allowed for more democratic institutions in an effort to be accepted by the international community.  However, it would never give complete control to the people.  The constitution of Myanmar allows the military to hold at least 25 percent of all seats in Parliament, grants the commander-in-chief power over that of the President, and bans retrospective penal law.  The military is allowed to act outside of the control of Aung San Suu Kyi and the government of Myanmar.  Her inaction is not a result of ignorance, but of a constitution designed to keep the military in control.

Despite the laws of Myanmar, there is still more the State Counsellor could be doing for the Rohingya people. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi has not yet spoken out against the military. According to Fergal Keane of the BBC, “…her refusal to condemn well-documented military abuses provides the generals with political cover.”  While she is not the cause of these human rights abuses, her refusal to speak out allows the military to act without punishment.  Many around the world do not recognize the power the military possesses in the country.  Until the State Counsellor brings more attention to it, no one can begin to form a solution to the Rohingya crisis.