Aung San Suu Kyi’s political realities and the murky path to peace in Rakhine

Published on September 12, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

Channel NewsAsia – September 12, 2017

The international community should focus on ceasing hostilities and finding a long-term approach to the complex Rohingya issue instead of criticising Aung San Suu Kyi, says Nehginpao Kipgen.

As of Monday (Sep 11), the United Nations refugee agency said that more than 300,000 Rohingya have crossed the border to neighboring Bangladesh due to ongoing violence.

The number roughly equals a third of the country’s Rohingya population, although the Myanmar government has not released official figures. The violence has also forced several thousands of Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus to flee their homes.

The attacks on Myanmar security forces on Aug 25 come ten months after a similar set of attacks on Myanmar police in October last year. The October 2016 attacks forced Myanmar security forces to launch a counter-offensive which resulted in several deaths and some 87,000 Rohingya fleeing the country for Bangladesh.

The Arakan Rohinya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group previously known as Harakah al Yaqin, responsible for the October attacks, has claimed responsibility for the Aug 25 attacks.

Ata Ullah, the leader of ARSA, has also claimed that hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the group to defend the rights of the Rohinya population from what he says are atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces.

In the aftermath of this latest violence, the situation in Rakhine state, particularly in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the remote northern part of the state where the Rohingya population is largely concentrated, is likely to witness a period of simmering tensions, deep suspicion, and the possibility of greater violence leading to more injuries and deaths.


While the international community has criticised the Myanmar government for the Rohingya crisis that has unfolded over the past two weeks, the de-facto leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been singled out for blame.

There have even been calls to revoke her Nobel peace prize even though the Norwegian Nobel committee has ruled out any such move.

Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire because critics have had exceedingly high expectations of her and her government after decades of military rule. Most critics point to her reticence and say she’s unwilling to speak out on the plight of the Rohingya.

Others accuse her of inaction, because she has not taken substantive steps to address the long-standing issue of the Rohingya. Critics say she has not done much to integrate them and give them citizenship, despite coming into power on pledges to protect threatened ethnic minorities.

But the reality is that dynamics of Myanmar’s political system hamstring her. Aung San Suu Kyi cannot hold the office of the presidency, the highest office in the land.

Her NLD government is also in a power-sharing mode with the country’s powerful military, which controls, among others, three most important ministries relating to security matters – home affairs, defence and border affairs.

Myanmar’s power-sharing political system is such that the military can simply choose to ignore or not cooperate with the NLD-led civilian government – the Tatmadaw can operate autonomously under Myanmar’s constitution. In addition, more than 75 per cent of Parliament is needed to approve changes to the constitution but 25 per cent of seats are reserved for the military.

The possibility of another military takeover of Myanmar also cannot be completely ruled out – and can be easily carried out should the Myanmar military perceive a real threat to Myanmar’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Many forget that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer an activist or a human-rights advocate. As a politician, she has to take into account the sentiments of the Myanmar public especially majority voters.

On this issue, even though the Dalai Lama has spoken out against violence, Aung San Suu Kyi does not have the support of many Buddhist ultranationalist groups. Segments of the Myanmar public, most of whom are known to be Buddhist and conservative, are unrelenting when it comes to the Rohingya.

Instead of directing anger and frustration toward Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government, the international community, including the United Nations and the powerful western democracies, should put pressure on the Myanmar military leadership, particularly the commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to end the violence and work toward achieving a peaceful solution to the vexed Rohingya problem.


To prevent further loss of lives and violence from continuing, both short-term and long-term measures should be implemented soonest.

Short-term measures should focus on the cessation of violence and hostilities from both ARSA and Myanmar security forces. Law and order needs to be restored, and all innocent civilians must be given full protection and necessary provisions before simmering tensions can subside. Peaceful measures must be put in place to prevent any communal tension or violence from spreading to other parts of the country.

A stumbling block may be the Myanmar military’s psyche that it will not accept any third party involvement or mediation which it considers tantamount to an interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

There are rumours that the Myanmar government has been in touch with China and Russia to oppose any resolution at the UN Security Council, which may be discussed when the Council meets on Wednesday (Sep 13). Similarly, any attempts involving ASEAN is likely to be opposed by the Myanmar government.

It is useful therefore that the ARSA has declared a unilateral ceasefire. The immediate need is to end armed clashes and other forms of violence. International humanitarian groups, such as the Red Cross and others, need to be allowed in to attend to the injured and provide basic necessities to the affected.

The successful implementation of such short-term measures depends primarily on the Myanmar military and the civilian government led by the NLD. ARSA insurgents must also desist from further attacks.


The attacks on the morning of Aug 25 unfortunately occurred hours after the nine-member advisory commission led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan released its official report advising the government on long-term solutions for the violence-riven Rakhine state.

Long-term measures should pay greater emphasis on the effective implementation of the Annan Commission’s recommendations, with regards to both Rakhine and the Rohingya people.

Among others, the commission’s recommendations include a proposal for the Myanmar government to take concrete steps to end the enforced segregation of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and allow unfettered humanitarian aid into Rakhine.

The commission also highlights that the Myanmar government has to address the statelessness of the Rohingya, to hold accountable those who violate human rights, and to end restrictions on the free movement of the Rohingya community.

The Annan Commission’s report also advises the Myanmar government to address other important related issues, such as socioeconomic development in the impoverished state and the establishment of the rule of law. It also proposes to enhance bilateral relations with neighbouring Bangladesh and strengthen cooperation among local communities, Rakhine state and the central government.

The commission proposes a ministerial-level appointment to coordinate and ensure the implementation of its recommendations.

It may be difficult or even impossible for many in Myanmar, including the military and the ultranationalist groups to accept the Rohingya as citizens. But it is undeniable fact that many of them have lived in the country for generations, even though the Myanmar government does not welcome them.

Without addressing the fundamental issues of the Rohingya, issues which include those involving Myanmar’s national identity and citizenship, the core of the problem in Rakhine will persist. The Rohingya issue will continue to pose security and territorial threats and hamper the nation’s peace process and development.

Ultimately, reconciliation will have a chance to succeed only when the Rohingya and those in Rakhine are willing to compromise on their differences by respecting each other’s identity and culture.

More importantly, the Myanmar government and the general public must be ready to embrace the Rohingya if any genuine reconciliation is to be achieved.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the O P Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratisation of Myanmar.

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