As the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar (formerly Burma) continues, so do calls for the country’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to publicly condemn the Burmese military. On September 19th, she broke her silence, but not in a way the international community wanted. She stated that Myanmar needs to find out “what the real problems are” in Rakhine state. In the same speech, she also mentioned that Myanmar did not fear international scrutiny. The international community has continuously supported Aung San Suu Kyi throughout her struggle for democracy in Myanmar. Her silence now that she is in power is disappointing, but can be explained by Burmese politics.
Between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of her time either imprisoned or under house arrest. The reason was her forming the National League of Democracy (NLD) party and non-violently protesting for democracy in Myanmar. However, despite her troubles with her home government, the international community loved her. In 1991 she was award the Nobel Peace Prize. After 2010, she was allowed to enter parliament when the NLD won the majority of the seats. Then president Thein Sein called for the country’s first open elections in 25 years in 2015. The NLD won by a landslide and Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed to her current position.
While Aung San Suu Kyi had a struggle to gain power, the Rohingya people have struggled for basic human rights. The Burmese government has never recognized the Rohingya people as part of their country, and do not even allow them to vote. They primarily reside in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which has a poverty rate of 78%. Violence has been a constant in Rakhine, but recently sparked again last month when Rohingya extremists attacked 30 police stations, causing a heavy crack down from the military.
The question is why is Aung San Suu Kyi remaining quiet on this crisis. She has received widespread condemnation and calls for her to meet with the Rohingya people. To understand her silence, one must understand the political climate of Myanmar. In Myanmar, the Rohingya are widely unpopular. A Muslim minority in a Buddhist country, many see them as outsiders. A UN spokeswoman called the group ‘the most friendless people in the word.’ For someone who only recently gained political power, advocating for these people could lead for the majority of Myanmar to turn against her. It could cost her party votes in 2020. She has only been in power for less than 2 years; she is not going to jeopardize her political power even if it earns her condemnation abroad.
I am not arguing that Aung San Suu Kyi should not condemn the military’s brutal crackdown. The Rohingya people have long been persecuted and it is morally wrong for a government to continue treating them as outsiders. However, in order to keep power, Aung San Suu Kyi will likely continue to remain silent.
Featured Image: Myanmar/Burma: Little Hope for Rohingya IDPs by European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr Creative Commons
Laurel Anderson is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School focusing on Diplomacy and Security. She is also ExPatt Magazine’s Digital Editor. She received her bachelor’s degree at Centre College with a major in International Relations and a minor in Asian Studies. Her primary interests include democratic movements in Asia, nuclear diplomacy, and the rise of China.