Is Aung San Suu Kyi Really Responsible for the Rohingya Crisis?

7 September 2017


In the last two weeks, Burma has seen its ethnic tensions in Rakhine state escalate to their highest level yet. A coordinated attack by Rohingya militants against police outposts has triggered a military crackdown dwarfing that of October 2016. The world has been watching since the UN Special Rapporteur visited the country to inspect abuses, and a commission led by ex UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been assessing the situation of the Rohingya. The level of violence used by the military is therefore astounding. Horrific reports of murder, rape, torture, and the burning of villages have been building, with an estimated 2,000-3,000 killed and 22,000 houses burned down. Around 160,000 Rohingya refugees, about 15% of the Rohingya population of Rakhine state, have crossed into Bangladesh, with the UN warning this could increase to as many as 300,000.

Encouragingly, these events are beginning to making headline news across the world. What is not so widely reported is where the responsibility lies for these atrocities.

Given her international fame, her Nobel Peace Prize, and her position as de facto president of Burma, attention naturally strays towards Aung San Suu Kyi. The criticism has been extreme. Protests in Indonesia have likened her to extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu and burned pictures of her, and The Guardian has called for her to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize, alongside 370,000 signatories of this petition. More moderate criticism comes from the likes of fellow Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who has called on her to ‘condemn’ the atrocities, and UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, calling on her to stop the violence.

The suggestion that she is personally responsible for actions of the military shows a complete misunderstanding of who holds the monopoly of violence in Burma. Despite the nominally ‘democratic’ government, the military is entirely autonomous and completely unaccountable to civilian administration. It controls key ministries such as the police and interior ministries, and retains 25% of the seats in parliament, as per the military drafted constitution. Suu Kyi therefore has no direct power to curb the violence.

Criticism of her silence over the atrocities, on the other hand, is understandable. In being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and being an icon for democracy, she has a responsibility to speak out against human rights violations and lack of the rule of law. Yet the nuances of the delicate nature of the civilian/military government require good relations with the military, which could explain her silence. For instance, a statement by the Yangon Chief Minister, U Phyo Min Thein (himself a member of Suu Kyi’s NLD party), was criticised by Suu Kyi’s government and forced to apologise to the military for his ‘confrontational’ and ‘insulting’ language – that ‘the military should be under civil administrative rule’ and that ‘this is not a democracy’. Such suppression by Suu Kyi’s government of the very comments that helped win her the Nobel Peace Prize shows the importance she places in good relations with the military.

Critics would argue that the maintenance of good relations with the military does not outweigh her responsibility to condemn the mass human rights abuses in her country. This argument, however, does not consider the potential consequences of such condemnation. As explained in a previous blog, the transition to democracy depends on avoiding shock reforms that the military could interpret as a loss of power, and take the country back to square one. The consequences of this should not be underestimated. It is hard to imagine the situation of the Rohingya improving under the regime that has, for decades, systematically denied them access to facilities and citizenship, and that is conducting the current wave of abuses.

This leads to the key argument of this article: It is not Aung San Suu Kyi who is committing these atrocities. It is not Suu Kyi who has placed landmines along the border with Bangladesh to prevent the return of refugees, neither is it her who is committing murder, rape, and torture. These charges lay instead against Min Aung Hlain, Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and the man capable of stopping the abuses. Organisations such as Burma Campaign are trying to focus international attention and criticism on Min Aung Hlain, noting that that the UK government criticism of the Rohingya abuses don’t even mention him, despite his monopoly violence.

International criticism should, therefore, be directed principally towards the Commander-in-Chief. The focus of international pressure on Suu Kyi could potentially compromise the country’s democratic progress, but more importantly disregards the ultimate responsibility of Min Aung Hlain.

Burmese Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlain

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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