Friday, March 31, 2017

Nothing changes in Myanmar

Unlike much of the mainstream media, this blog is not easily impressed by words. We judge actions to be much more important than promises, or in the case of Nobel prize winnerAung San Suu Kyi, we were not surprised by the lack of action.

Our blog post back in 2015 said, “The world’s media appears to be all cock-a-hoop about the election victory of the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi. But the reality is that little will change in Myanmar.”

Our prediction has proved right. This blog posted last year that while  “...every leader in the world from the Dalai Lama to the Pope to veteran Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu and to the youngest Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yusufzai has called for the end of Rohingya persecution and restoration of their full citizenship rights...Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly refused to heed these calls." 

We reported last year that National League for Democracy’s party leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she will protect Muslims in the country but this article in the Guardian casts a lot of doubt on that pledge. Burma's generals in effect still control parliament after a deeply flawed 2010 election and Aung San Suu Kyi has done little to seriously challenge them. 

Interviews by the Guardian with more than a dozen diplomats, analysts and current and former advisers reveal frustrations with Aung San Suu Kyi’s questionable leadership style, her inability or unwillingness to communicate a vision, and her reluctance to speak out against the persecution of minorities. One diplomat put it, “I think she’s closer to a Margaret Thatcher.” It’s a stark contrast to the Aung San Suu Kyi during her 15 years of house arrest. David Mathieson, a longtime Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch who is now an independent consultant said, “She was principled … And I think it’s lamentable that she’s not doing the equivalent of that now.”  

A senior aid worker explained, “In meetings, she is dismissive, dictatorial – in some cases, belittling,” and continued, the government, he said, has become “so centralised, there is complete fear of her”. Obsession with party loyalty soon became a theme. NLD legislators were told not to speak to the media in the run-up to the election and then were ordered not to raise tough questions in parliament.

The silence held through October, as a fresh crisis unfolded in Rakhine state, and November, when four ethnic armed groups formed a new alliance in the north. Conflict has escalated to unprecedented levels in Shan and Kachin states, with tens of thousands of refugees driven over the border into China. Ethnic leaders have recently questioned the extent of her sympathies with minorities. Her government has put out statements condemning abuses by ethnic armed groups, ignoring aggressions from the military. In one case it labelled a major ethnic organisation a terrorist outfit. The peace process analyst said she has one strategy: “to have good relationships with the Tatmadaw [army]”.

The biggest moral challenge for her is posed by Rakhine state, a tinderbox of tension between minority Rohingya Muslims and majority Buddhists. In 2012, she did not speak out after a surge in sectarian violence that led to the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, in Rakhine state. In an apparent concession to domestic racist factions, her party blocked Muslims from running for parliament in 2015.

On 9 October  nine police officers were killed on the western border with Bangladesh by Rohingya armed with swords and makeshift rifles. Soldiers sealed off the remote corner of the country, barring media and aid access. Tens of thousands of Rohingya, whom many in Myanmar regard as illegal “Bengali” immigrants from Bangladesh, fled across the border to refugee camps. They have recounted mass killings and rape, accusations which the military denies. One woman who spoke to the Guardian said troops raped her, killed her husband and seven of her children. One child survived, she said.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has angrily dismissed many of the claims as “fabrications”. The words “fake rape” were plastered over her official Facebook page. An aide, Win Htein said the “Muslim lobby” exaggerates the plight of the group, even though 120,000 have been confined to camps in Rakhine state since 2012. He said the “illegal immigrants are flowing into our country like a stream since many decades ago” and that Islamic practices are incompatible with Buddhist beliefs. Asked if he thought Aung San Suu Kyi might have private sympathy for the Rohingya. He paused and then said: “No.”

 10 months into her rule, one of her advisers, a prominent Muslim lawyer, was assassinated, her silence left many dumbfounded. Ko Ni, a constitutional lawyer who helped create the state counsellor position, was shot dead on 29 January as he stood outside Yangon international airport, holding his grandson in his arms. For a month, Aung San Suu Kyi made no public comment. She did not even call the family.

The immense authority retained by the military means  Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor, has limited power over what happens in conflict areas. But even in sectors well within its purview, the government is seen to be falling short. The NLD’s parliamentary majority gives it the ability to amend and remove oppressive laws, including the notorious 66D clause in the telecommunications law that has been used to jail scores of people for Facebook posts critical of the government and army. But, instead, senior NLD officials began using it with an order to pursue some of the cases against critics coming from the highest levels of government. Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s regional director for south-east Asia and the Pacific, said: “This is not the change the NLD promised to deliver during last year’s elections.”

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