After Shaming Aung San Suu Kyi: Then What? – Analysis


While the UN has described the latest atrocities in Myanmar on the Rohingya minority as textbook ethnic cleansing, the international reaction of shaming Aung San Suu Kyi for the Rohingya crisis is unhelpful to all parties. ASEAN should consider coordinating action to help Myanmar overcome the complex problem.

By Kang Siew Kheng*

In 1991, the international community honoured Ms Aung San Suu Kyi with the Nobel Peace Prize while she was under house arrest. In 2015, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won power on a popular electoral mandate. Then, practically overnight, Ms Suu Kyi went from democracy icon to international pariah.

On 4 October 2017, the City of Oxford, where she studied as an undergraduate, decided to withdraw an honorary title it bestowed on her in 1997. This growing disillusionment comes from the sense that Ms Suu Kyi has been too silent too long on the Rohingya issue and not virulent enough when she finally spoke.

Competing Narratives

The scale of the humanitarian disaster is disturbing and haunting. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the outbreak of violence in Myanmar that triggered the latest outflow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh as “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Human rights advocates, however, seem to be engaged in a campaign to disparage Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar.

The New Yorker named her “the ignoble laureate”; Amnesty International accused her of “untruths.and victim blaming”. No less an icon than Desmond Tutu reportedly wrote her that “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.

Yet, against the backdrop of media images of what is an ongoing, overnight, crisis, the international community cannot summarily dismiss Ms Suu Kyi’s counter-narrative of an “iceberg of misinformation” or the wider dispute about ground realities.

One story that has emerged in Myanmar social media is that the attacks on the military posts on 25 August 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was timed to provoke precisely the kind of harshest possible response from the Tatmadaw military; the attacks came on the day before the release of the Report by Advisory Commission of Rakhine State.

According to this narrative, they were calculated to doom any prospects in the effort, commissioned by Ms Suu Kyi, to map “a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine”. For sure, no deemed past wrongs in history can justify present-day violence, but no present-day policy can bring about reconciliation until the old animosities have been addressed.

Complex and Complicated

The Rakhine situation is too complex for megaphone moral outrage. It is a particularly instructive example of bad communal dynamics, rooted in British colonial divide-and-rule strategy, reinforced by generations of politics and complicated by continuing poverty and economic deprivation that affect both the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine.

It is easy to forget that Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD was elected to power in 2015 amid a growing tide of nationalism and communal mistrust. Ironically democracy unleashed deep-seated grievances that were more restrained by the iron hand of military rule.

Many of Ms Suu Kyi’s electoral base regard the Rohingya as a late political construct, that many of them were transient migrants on a porous and troublesome border, and were now being used to legitimise old claims for greater autonomy and independence. Significantly, in Rakhine State, the NLD did not perform as well as it largely did in the rest of the country.

Impact of Public Shaming

The international reaction to lambast Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful to all parties. First, what passes for international moral outrage makes the Myanmar angrily defensive. It serves only to dull the voices of those in Myanmar that are against demonisation of a minority. Instead, it feeds the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that a democratic Myanmar faces an existentialist crisis, which Ms Suu Kyi and her party are ill-disposed to address.

Second, the end of decades of isolation and sanctions has fanned expectations of the economic boom promised by democratic rule. But there are now signs that Myanmar’s economic growth has slowed. Reform has also been slow, not least because Ms Suu Kyi was trying to do too much in too little time. If international opprobrium ends in politically-motivated moves like re-sanctions, it could derail the already very late catch-up in a country that remains one of the poorest in ASEAN.

Third, Ms Suu Kyi has the unenviable task of leading with one hand tied, not possessing all the levers of power, as even her worst critics know. Ultimately her democratically-elected government must find a modus operandi with the military leaders. She needs all the help she can get, inside or outside Myanmar.

Administering a country faced with a multitude of challenges while bringing about national reconciliation is statecraft. It requires political savviness and immense energy for protracted negotiations in a country with a history of communal uprisings that involve not only the Rohingya.

A Role for ASEAN

ASEAN finally issued a predictably anodyne Chair statement on the Rakhine situation following an ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Not unexpectedly, Malaysia disassociated itself from the statement. Kuala Lumpur, in early 2017, had hosted a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that issued a strong rebuke to the Myanmar government. Malaysia is, after all, host to nearly 60,000 UN-registered Rohingya refugees.

Yet, ASEAN must acknowledge that the Rohingya is no longer just a domestic problem, but has important implications for regional peace and stability. Left alone, the Rohingya will continue to be a festering wound and destabilise the entire operating environment and regional order in ASEAN.

ASEAN’s dialogue partner, India, is already threatening to deport its Rohingya refugees on the grounds of growing security concerns. Even if one doubts the hand of terrorist elements using the Rohingya as shield, the chaos and scale of humanitarian disaster is fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment, which is something all ASEAN countries must be concerned about.

Time for Coordinated Action

It is time for ASEAN to consider a coordinated course of action, and perhaps work with vested dialogue partners like China and India, which can also engage Bangladesh. Myanmar needs a regional solution. ASEAN would do well to engage in the kind of quiet diplomacy it is best equipped to do, across the spectrum of relations, including military diplomacy.

The Myanmar who only see the Rohingya as a political construct must eventually get past the prison of history, be persuaded to put behind real and perceived historical injustices, and acknowledge the ground realities of generations of people who call Myanmar home.

Yet this conversation cannot happen with the world heaping such derision on, and threats of new economic sanctions against, Myanmar and its popularly elected leader. ASEAN can work to counter the potential international isolation of Myanmar that helps neither Myanmar nor the Rohingya.

* Kang Siew Kheng is Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She was formerly Singapore’s Ambassador to Laos.


RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries. For any republishing of RSIS articles, consent must be obtained from S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

7 thoughts on “After Shaming Aung San Suu Kyi: Then What? – Analysis

  • October 7, 2017 at 5:17 am

    The former ambassador is more concerned that economic sanctions against Burma would hurt Singapore’s multimillion-dollar investments. It’s about blood money. Humanity be damned.

    • October 10, 2017 at 7:01 pm

      Please tell this to the Americans!

  • October 7, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    Even at the beginning of the article the author claims ” the latest atrocities in Myanmar on the Rohingya minority as textbook ethnic cleansing…” without first hand knowledge and refers to UN. This initial reaction from UN is not only exaggerated but typical of UN which is dominated by world muslim organizations and their timing with attack by ARSA smacks of collusion.

    However, most neutral observers will agree with the author “The international reaction to lambast Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful to all parties.” The only thing that ASEAN and other countries can do now is to get the facts right before making any judgment. To this end, Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar has done their part by allowing UN observers to visit the area without any adverse comment from the observers.

    What remain unmentioned in most reports and news articles is the scale of on-going islamic terrorism in Rakhine state, Myanmar. ARSA and hoards of muslim mobs (some estimate put it at around 50% of Bengali muslims participated) armed with modern weapons and backed by islamic religious leaders not only attached the 13 security posts in Myanmar but also killed and raped hundreds of innocent Buddhists and Hindus, set the villages and homes on fire. Now ARSA and the muslim mobs have evacuated and taken their families to Bangladesh, where they are claiming to be refugees (knowing full well that the UN will take care of them better than the local Bangladeshis) but all the while they are planning and training on more attacks with the full complicity of Bangladesh and Pakistan intelligence agencies.

    • October 10, 2017 at 7:21 pm

      Tamils of Sri Lanka played the same trick on the UN and international community taking the human rights organisations for a ride. Now they live comfortably in western countries after getting refugee status and are still trying to create problems for Sri Lanka. They are not at all interested in the welfare of the Tamils who chose to stay and live with the Sinhalese in the island. The West used the Tamils to create a puppet regime using the UN Human Rights Council in the process. What you see in Myanmar is exactly a rerun of this process – instead of Tamils using Rohingyas now. Both Sri Lanka and Myanmar are strategically important for China’s (and Asia’s) BRI (new Silk Route) project that will permanently bring the center of gravity of the world economy back to Asia. West want a puppet in Myanmar (Like Sirisena and Wickremasinghe in Sri Lanka) to do the job for them. They thought Aung San Suu Kyi was the one but she is too smart to fall into this trap. That is why they are unhappy with her. Malaysia has a huge problem with lack of labour in the country. They bring 1000s of Bangladeshi and Indonesians each year to work there. Why not provide a home to the Rohingya refugees and the problem will be solved permanently. Australia needs 1000s of unskilled labour as well to work in their farms . It will be nice for Australia to play a positive role in Asia (rather than trying to be America’s deputy sherriff .. that era is gone) and provide a home to the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, give them some land and train them to farm. I’m sure the Rohingyas would love that rather than return to Myanmar. This will be a win-win solution. So rather than shedding crocodile tears for Rohingyas why not play a positive role Australia? These human rights dramas today are being staged on a very jittery stage known as hypocisy!

  • October 7, 2017 at 4:35 pm

    You condemn only. This is our national security. Shame or no shame is doesn’t matter while our land will taken by illegal immigrants. Sorry we never regret. We had our generous. If ASEAN never help we will go another way. This time we have the one way only to do is inline with Communists. Too much far away go with ASEAN.??!!

  • October 7, 2017 at 11:48 pm

    Certainly there are illusions. Self-identified Rolinyas are not yet minorities of Myanmar. Whatever howlong they have lived here, successive governments did not grant them citizenship, but allow stay in Myanmar. By any international definition they are just migrants, and not indigenous. Their attempt to make them indigenous in improper ways outrages mass of Myanmar. Myanmars feel they are deceived, by Bengalis with the help of their Muslim brethren countries. In problem solving, not only humanitarium is important, but also truth is important. In solving Rakhine problem we must not forget the truth of Bengalis being Chittagonian migrants trying to get foothold in Myanmar’s land. Solutions must be based on it, not on self-identified Rolinyas as a minority of Myanmar. Until this basic difference is seen and followed, all attempts to solve the problem will encounter resistance from Myanmar natives.

  • October 9, 2017 at 3:08 am

    Bangladesh not long ago was part and parcel of the One Pakistan ( West & East Pakistan) until East Pakistan ( todays Bangaldesh – primarily BENGALI SPEAKING) decided to part ways with West Pakistan ( todays Pakistan – primarily URDU SPEAKING) , but yet both MUSLIMS???
    Rohingyas,( Bengali speaking Muslims) in the census of the British (1882)were referred to as MOHAMEDDANS and locally referred to as CHITTAGONIANS and or KHAW TAWS as a matter of interest only 64,000 Mohammedans were registered in the Arakan Division. as opposed to the figure floating around today of >3,000,000 Rohingyas alone!!!!!
    Bangladesh & Myanmar have been able to maintain very cordial relationships and when problems arose over borders, a 3rd Party decision was amicably accepted.
    In the interest of Bangladesh & Myanmar 3rd Partys, such as India & China should be considered as intermediaries considering the commercial and proximity of the two should be preferable, than ASEAN, and worse still the involvement of the US/Euro/OIC.


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