When Myanmar began its transition to democracy in 2010, it signaled a new hope for democracy in the developing world. Once thought impossible, the release of long-time opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest was thought to be the beginning of the end of the brutal military dictatorship which had ruled the area for over half a century. Five years later in 2015, the democratic aspirations of Myanmar were seemingly realized when Aung San Suu Kyi won the presidential election. All appeared to be well for Myanmar. Unfortunately, the current brutal genocide of the Rohingya people at the hands of government troops shatters the hope for a democratic Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s behavior–discounting of the media, and exclusionary rhetoric-is textbook populism. However, while the president has taken the brunt of international blame for this democratic backslide, the violence against the Rohingya people is not an indication of the breakdown of democracy in Myanmar, but of the pre existing shortcomings of Myanmar’s infant democracy.
After police officers were killed by what the government claimed were Rohingya insurgents in 2016, military troops began a massive campaign of human rights violations in Rohingya villages; crimes included rape, arson, and murder. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as a minority and avoided addressing the massacres on both domestic and international platforms. However,her reluctance to address the issue is not necessarily a refusal to acknowledge the horrors that Rohingya suffers, but rather an attempt to deny her lack of control over the Myanmar military.
Aung San Suu Kyi no doubt has engaged in populist rhetoric when referring to the Rohingya. Her government has repeatedly referred to the minority as Bengalis, creating a sense of otherness amongst Myanmar citizenry. According to a report done by the International Crisis Group, the idea that Islam is a threat to Myanmar is prevalent throughout major media and mass religious publications. The head of state’s refusal to acknowledge the horror occurring in the remote corners of her country, coupled with dismissal of international concerns only exacerbates an already growing domestic fears of Islam. Her exclusionary rhetoric, calling Rohingya Bengalis and terrorists, paints the Rohingya as violent outsiders, threatening Myanmar’s way of life. By calling Rohingya terrorists she capitalizes on the already present fears of the Islam in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s exclusionary rhetoric serves to reinforce populist ideology in Myanmar and paints the Rohingya as the source, rather than the victims, of ethnic violence in the Rakhine state.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims of fake news invalidates international concerns of ethnic cleansing and reinforces her moral authority as a leader domestically. In her UN address on the issue, Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech was speckled with half-truths about the state of affairs for Muslims in Myanmar according to The Guardian’s fact check. Yet, while the leader of Myanmar claims that international observers have been misinformed, it is, in fact, the Myanmar public that has suffered at the hands of false news. She has claimed an “iceberg of misinformation” abroad about the crisis in the Rakhine state. While her claims have been discounted abroad, her claim has been fully believed by the Myanmar people. International insistence that Suu Kyi take action has only further cemented her status as a moral hero to the Myanmar people. Not only Myanmar’s citizen’s that the violence in the Rakhine state has been vastly overblown, ethnic violence is nowhere near the top of Myanmar’s citizens political concerns with only 12% of polled citizens citing ethnic conflict as a reason the country is headed in the wrong direction (Survey of Myanmar/Burma Public Opinion). Since her electorate has no interest in the issue of the Rakhine state she has no need, politically, to address the genocide being conducted by the military.
Addressing the genocide and her lack of control over the military also weakens her position as the leader of Myanmar. While she is the political leader, the Constitution still grants ultimate authority to the military. Acknowledging the genocide shatters the illusion of democracy in Myanmar. While Aung San Suu Kyi is not a political puppet by any means, her inability to exercise control over the military attacks on Rohingya demonstrates that Myanmar is not nearly democratic as thought previous to the genocide. Addressing this reality only harms her political position both domestically and internationally.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to address the genocide in the Rakhine state highlights a painful reality. While she was elected fairly and is the political leader of Myanmar, constitutionally a majority of the power in Myanmar resides with the military. The violence against Rohingya is simply a continuation of a historic discriminatory campaign by the military junta in Myanmar. While the violence has never escalated to the level of 2016 previously, there is a history of government discrimination against the ROhingya since the military coup in 1962. WHile past provisions have included national registration cards and denial of citizenship, violence was the rule of the military junta, and the displacement of Rohingya is not a new development. The 2016 genocide is simply a more extreme expression of the campaign of violence the Rohingya have been subjugated to by the Myanmar military.
While Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed thoughts that echo the rhetoric of her populist peers, the violence in the Rakhine state is more a manifestation of the fragmentation of democracy that has existed in Myanmar from the beginning rather than an active governmental ethnic cleansing. Rather than actively wiping out the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi cannot control the military and limit its power–a sign that democracy never truly existed in Myanmar.
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