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The coup leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi have betrayed democracy in Myanmar

Demonstrators hold portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand on 1 February 2021. [Guillaume Payen - Anadolu Agency]
Demonstrators hold portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand on 1 February 2021. [Guillaume Payen - Anadolu Agency]

What is taking place in Myanmar right now is a military coup. There can be no other description for such an unwarranted action as the dismissal of the government by military decree and the imposition of Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, as an unelected ruler.

However, despite the endless talk about democratisation, Myanmar was, in the years leading up to the coup, far from being a true democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country's erstwhile ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has done very little to bring about meaningful change since she was designated State Counsellor.

Since her return to Rangoon in 1989 and house arrest for many years, Suu Kyi was transformed from an activist making the case for democracy in her country, into a "democracy icon" and, eventually, into an untouchable cult personality. The title "State Counsellor", invented by the NDL following the 2016 elections, was meant to place her authority above all others in government.

The justification for this special status is that the military, which continued to have substantial sway over the government, would not allow Suu Kyi to serve as the Prime Minister, because her husband and children are British. However, there is more to the story. Writing in the New York Times recently about her relationship with her party, Richard C. Paddock said that Suu Kyi has controlled the NLD in a style that is similar to the previous military control of the country.

"Critics began calling the party a cult of personality," Paddock wrote. "Often criticised for her stubbornness and imperious style, she has kept the party firmly under her command and is known to demand loyalty and obedience from her followers."

READ: The Western response to the coup in Myanmar exposes its fickle support for democracy

Those who have celebrated the "Lady's" legacy of yesteryear were disappointed when the supposed human rights champion agreed to participate in the 2016 elections, despite the fact that millions of citizens who belong to marginalised ethnic groups — like Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya — were excluded from the ballot box.

Faint and bashful criticism was overpowered by the global celebration of Myanmar's fledgling democracy. No sooner had Suu Kyi been made the de facto leader, albeit in a direct alliance with the country's former junta, than international conglomerates — mostly Western — rushed to the capital, now called Yangon, to cash in on Myanmar's natural resources, left unexploited because of economic sanctions imposed on the country.

Rohingyan children wait for food aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 30 November 2017 [Fırat Yurdakul/Anadolu Agency]

Rohingyan children wait for food aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 30 November 2017 [Fırat Yurdakul/Anadolu Agency]

Many legitimate questions were brushed aside, so as not to blemish what was dubbed as a victory for democracy in Myanmar, won miraculously from a cruel military by a single woman who symbolised the determination and the decades-long struggle of her people. However, behind this carefully choreographed and romanticised veneer was a genocidal reality.

The genocide of the Rohingya, a pogrom of murder, rape and ethnic cleansing, goes back many decades in Myanmar. When the junta carried out its "cleansing" operations of Rohingya Muslims in the past, the violence was either entirely overlooked or conveniently classified under the all-encompassing discourse about human rights violations in the country. When, though, the genocide intensified in 2016-17 and continued unabated, many legitimate questions arose about the culpability of Myanmar's ruling NLD party and of Suu Kyi personally.

In the early months of the most recent episodes of the genocide at the hands of government forces and local militias, Suu Kyi and her party behaved as if the country was gripped by mere communal violence and that, ultimately, blame was to be shared by all of those involved. That discourse proved unsustainable.

READ: Arab silence on the Uyghur genocide is no surprise

Internationally, the Rohingya became a recurring theme in the media as hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to flee, mostly into Bangladesh. The magnitude of their misery was made known through daily horrific headlines. Incidents of rape and murder were documented by the UN and international human rights groups. As a result, thanks to the efforts of a group of 57 Muslim countries, a landmark lawsuit accusing Myanmar of genocide was filed at the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019.

For Suu Kyi and her party, ethnic allegiances and realpolitik superseded any platitudes about democracy and human rights, as she defiantly objected to international criticism and openly defended her government and military. In her testimony at the UN Court in December 2019, Suu Kyi described the genocidal violence of the Rohingya as "cycles of inter-communal violence going back to the 1940s". Moreover, she harangued the international investigators and human rights groups for their "impatience" and blamed them for rushing to judgment.

By dismissing what "many human rights experts have called some of the worst pogroms of this century," Suu Kyi turned from "champion of human rights and democracy to apparent apologist for brutality," reported the NYT.

Although we must insist that the return to military rule in Myanmar is unacceptable, we must demand equally that the country embraces true democracy for all of its citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. A good start would be to disassociate Aung San Suu Kyi from any inclusive democratic movement there. The Lady of Myanmar had her opportunity but, sadly, she failed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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