The international community had high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi

Is there still hope for Myanmar?

On November 8th 2015, I witnessed history in the making.

It was a humid day in Yangon and the streets were clogged with people waiting to hear the momentous result of the first democratic election in two and a half decades. The energy in the air was undeniable as citizens anticipated the country’s fate, but beyond the crowd and cheer, I followed the allure of a street side cart. Big mistake. The fried chicken rice I ordered would be responsible for nearly three days of agonizing diarrhoea and vomiting.

The hastily cooked rice tasted flawless at the time; street food can be deceptive like that. In hindsight, this could have been a premonition of the lingering disappointment and despair for the newly elected leader and former Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician, not a peace-maker

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ascended to her election victory after fifteen years in house arrest for her political activism against a brutal military dictatorship.  

The house arrest was an (unsuccessful) attempt to suppress her influence and leadership, but Aung San Suu Kyi continued to demonstrate her dedication to democracy and commitment to the country. The world had high hopes for Myanmar after a landslide victory by the National League for Democracy but unsurprisingly, the military held on to the keys to power, controlling the country’s resources and securing 25 per cent of parliamentary seats under the constitution.

In the early days of The Lady’s leadership, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first mark as the de facto leader of the country by refusing to acknowledge the plight of the Rohingya at the hands of an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign by the military. This position would be largely unchanging in the coming years but the international community remained hopeful.

Aung San Suu Kyi echoed the claims of her Buddhist-majority supporters, refused to welcome a United Nations Fact Finding Mission and defended the military’s use of violence against the ‘illegal immigrants’. She was flaunting her political prowess domestically but in exchange, Aung San Suu Kyi pivoted from her dedication to human rights.

Today, the Rohingya remain unidentified and stateless, and almost 700,000  have fled to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. Without any concrete plans to address flagrant human rights abuses and obvious ethnic cleansing, Aung San Suu Kyi was revoked of the Ambassador of Conscience Award for her refusal to speak out against the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslim minorities.

The skeleton is out of the closet

The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded a year-long investigation into allegations of human rights violations in August 2018. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to welcome the fact-finding committee into the country, but after witness testimonies and verified evidence from neighbouring Bangladesh, the report recommends:

  • The United Nations Security Council should refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to undergo an investigation into allegations of genocide
  • The Security Council is urged to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar and penalize those most responsible for crimes with travel bans and a freeze on assets.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi and her government should pivot governmental policy on the Rohingya immediately, as an act of omission is also considered an atrocity

With growing evidence to depict genocidal intent and ethnic cleansing, the future of democracy in Myanmar is questionable and bleak.

During the historic election in 2015, I wrote about Myanmar’s young voters who were optimistic at the thought of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election. Three years later, the sentiment around the world is drastically different, and as the Washington Post describes, Myanmar’s dreams for democracy are more like a ‘nightmarish reality’.

Recently, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced intentions to welcome back its first group of refugees from Bangladesh, but UN agencies are sceptical, stating that Rohingya families should return to what’s left of their former villages when they feel it is safe to do so.

International pressure and coercion through diplomacy and sanctions has incentivised the country towards democracy in the past and may prompt the government to prioritise the human dignity and rights of its ethnic minorities. Recognition of Rohingya citizenship, an end to the nationwide ethnic conflict, and a guarantee of economic, social and cultural rights for all people are long overdue.

In the case of ongoing crime, international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court may be the only hope of attaining justice for the Rohingya and holding Myanmar’s military leaders accountable for the alleged crime of genocide.