Over the past year, violence between the Burmese government and Rohingya Muslims has escalated due to the killing of nine police officers in Rakhine State, home to most of Myanmar’s one million Rohingya. Reprisals over the police assassinations have led state security forces into the region to search for the alleged Rohingya terrorists. However, since the search began, allegations of human rights violations, including reports of the killing of unarmed Rohingya men and rape of Rohingya women, have arisen.

While Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counsellor, has gained some respect from foreign leaders for improving foreign relations with the United States, her refusal to acknowledge the recent killings of Muslim Rohingyas by government militia forces has been criticized by foreign groups as her approval of an “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya.

In order to understand Suu Kyi’s silence, it is important to understand the two largest political constituencies in Myanmar — the military and Buddhist nationalists. The Buddhist nationalist movement, which has increasingly gained support amongst the Buddhist Burmese, Myanmar’s largest demographic, is responsible for the current anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country. Additionally, although the military voluntarily relinquished power after Suu Kyi’s victory, it still wields an inordinate amount of power in the country, and it has capitalized on the issue of the Rohingyas in order to preserve power. While Suu Kyi deserves some of the criticism for her failure to effectively deal with the violence against the Rohingya, her silence does not stem from a naive hatred of the group, but from a careful standoff between her, Myanmar’s military forces, and Buddhist nationalists.

Buddhist Nationalism

For many of the Buddhist Burmese majority in Myanmar, the Rohingya Muslims are seen as intruders and are widely despised. The exclusion of the Rohingya stems from the belief that they are “Bengalis” – migrants from Bangladesh that illegally immigrated to Myanmar during the period of British colonial rule in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The 969 Movement, a nationalist Buddhist movement led by Buddhist monks, has grown increasingly powerful in Suu Kyi’s Myanmar and has been responsible for an increase in anti-Islamophobic sentiment among the Burmese populace. In addition to encouraging the Burmese to boycott Muslim stores, the movement has also incited violence against Muslim groups like the Rohingya. In 2013, Buddhist monks led rioters to burn homes in the Muslim neighborhood of Meiktila in central Myanmar, which led to the deaths of more than 40 Muslims.

In a country in which nearly 90% of the populace practices Buddhism, including Suu Kyi herself, Suu Kyi risks alienating a sizable proportion of the populace should she condemn the Buddhist nationalists. Not only does she face condemnation from Western groups, who argue that Suu Kyi has remained silent on the issue of the Rohingya, but also from the leader of the 969 Movement, Ashin Wirathu. According to Wirathu, Suu Kyi and the “new civilian government is stepping forward to target me as enemy No.1.” Furthermore, many government officials are also sympathetic to the movement, including President Thein Sein, who not only passed four “race and religion” laws that targeted ethnic minorities on issues like religious conversion and interfaith marriage, but also claimed that “it [was] impossible that [Wirathu was] inciting religious violence.” Although not a Buddhist nationalist herself, Suu Kyi remains “silent” on the issue of Buddhist nationalism to avoid offending Buddhist monks, and her own government officials.

The Military

The current Constitution still effectively bars Suu Kyi from carrying out her own agenda. Myanmar’s most recent constitution in 2008 not only reserved 25% of the seats in parliament for the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar’s defense forces, but it also endowed the commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw with the power to declare a state of emergency. Should Suu Kyi act to antagonize the nation’s military forces, she might face a possible rebellion by the military. Given that rampant discrimination against the Rohingya is already deeply institutionalized in the country, Suu Kyi is reliant on the help of the military in order to overpower the strength of the nationalist Buddhist movement.

Many of the previous military regime’s most important leaders still remain in positions of power. Three ministries of the government — defense, home affairs, and border affairs — are directly controlled by the military, and many military generals hold positions in other ministries. Therefore, the military has the power to block legislation protecting the rights of the Rohingya, and to threaten Suu Kyi as well.

Additionally, the current rise in prominence of Buddhist nationalism is directly related to the previous military regime’s efforts to retain control. Prior to the free elections in 2012, the military encountered significant opposition from Buddhist monks in the “Saffron Revolution,” an attempt to challenge the military’s popular legitimacy through nonviolent protest. In order to stop the challenge to the regime, and in an effort to widen their support base, the military seized on pre-existing unease towards ethnic minorities and began to support Buddhist nationalism. Although the regime ultimately failed to preserve power, its encouragement led to a rise in support for Buddhist nationalism among the Burmese populace.

Although nearly ninety percent of the Tatmadaw are Buddhists, the decision to persecute the Rohingya lies not only in religion, but also in politics. By slandering the Rohingya as illegal migrants, the military hoped to neutralize and gain the support of its biggest threat to power — the Buddhist monks. Besides actively promoting anti-Rohingya sentiment, the military regime was able to implant its supporters in monastic communities through the “Sangha Purification” of the 1980s and “purify” the Buddhist community. Although the previous regime was unsuccessful in its attempt to purge pro-democracy activists from the monastic community, the regime was more successful in purging the community of monks sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya. For the Rohingya that suffered atrocities under the previous military regime, the fact that the military is effectively still in power means that it may continue to commit human rights abuses at will. Ultimately, the current “democracy” in Myanmar hinges on Suu Kyi’s cooperation with the military, which explains some of Suu Kyi’s “silence” on the Rohingya.

The Failures of the New Administration

The current persecution against the Rohingya is not unique to Suu Kyi’s administration. Since the 1962 coup that ended Myanmar’s brief stint as a democracy, the government has denied citizenship to the Rohingya under the 1982 Citizenship Act, which also bars Rohingya from serving within Myanmar’s civil service system.

The oppression of the Rohingya has also led to reports of human rights violations. These violations are difficult to confirm, since the government has blocked access to journalists in the Rakhine state, supposedly due to security concerns. Nevertheless, testimonies from Rohingya refugees uncover, and satellite imagery confirms, the destruction of at least 3 Rohingya villages by government militia forces, which attempted to cover up the violence against the group. However, according to Zaw Htay, a government spokesman of the president, allegations of human rights violations are part of a “disinformation campaign” spread as “propaganda for Muslim groups” like the Rohingya.

While Suu Kyi has made some attempts to bring about peaceful relations, her attempts have been largely a charade. Suu Kyi’s recent creation of the “Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State,” intended to “promote understanding and trust” between the Burmese majority and Rohingya, has done little to bring peace. While the creation of the committee seemingly shows Suu Kyi’s resolve to improve the situation of the Rohingya, it employs very few Rohingya members on the board, and has thus been ineffective in mending relationships. Additionally, Suu Kyi’s creation of an “Advisory Commission on Rakhine State,” headed by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, has supposedly aimed to “cover humanitarian, development, basic rights and security rights,” but has been met with heavy opposition from Buddhist nationalists who claim the addition of foreigners to the commission poses a threat to national sovereignty. After Rakhine legislators, many of whom are Buddhist nationalists, passed a proposal “rejecting the legitimacy” of the Commission, both commissions are now relatively powerless to stop the violence in the Rakhine state.

Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be fully blamed for her failure to deal effectively with the violence against the Rohingyas. Suu Kyi’s hesitation and indifference has actually been a calculated move to avoid antagonizing the military, which still hold significant power in the country, and Buddhist nationalists, who hold sizable influence in the legislature.

An Unfortunate Situation

In a country that has not escaped its legacy of military dominance, Suu Kyi lacks the power to stop the atrocities committed against the Rohingya herself. Should Suu Kyi voice disapproval or move to act against violent perpetrators, she risks alienating either the military or the Buddhist nationalists, two powerful political constituencies in Myanmar. Without the cooperation of the military, Suu Kyi cannot expect to address the concerns of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi is also reliant on the support of neighboring nations to accept more migrants fleeing to safety – in Myanmar, where racism against the Rohingya is already deeply institutionalized, the Rohingya cannot hope for a quick solution in the short run.

Image Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc

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