We wanted a fairytale, but we're getting a horror story. After 15 years of detention in which she suffered abuse, psychological torture and physical threats, Aung San Suu Kyi was swept to power by popular vote in November 2014 leading a party that excluded Muslim candidates. She faces massive challenges, not just to modernise an economy crippled by decades of corrupt rule but also to build democratic institutions and establish the rule of law. Within a year, her government had embarked on a brutal program of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist country.
Here we have a problem of cognitive dissonance. In psychology, it's the state of mental discomfort that arises when we are confronted by new information that conflicts with our existing beliefs, or the discomfort we feel when we act contrary to our values and beliefs. Everyone who subscribed to the Aung San Suu Kyi fairytale and knows anything about the treatment of the Rohingyas in Myanmar is feeling it. The group of world leaders including more than a dozen of her fellow Nobel peace prize winners, who wrote to the UN criticising Ms Suu Kyi's inaction and drawing parallels with Rwanda's 1994 genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, is probably feeling it. But what about Aung San Suu Kyi. Is she feeling it?
Myanmar's foreign minister, State Counsellor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: AP
We can only hope so.
Human rights groups have documented allegations of mass killings, rapes and the razing of villages by soldiers in Rakhine state; of soldiers firing out of helicopters at citizens on the ground, of babies being thrown in fires. Myanmar's government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly dismissed the allegations as "fabrications". Amnesty International accuses Ms Suu Kyi of failing to "live up to both her political and moral responsibility to try to stop and condemn what is unfolding". The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said in June that crimes against humanity may have been committed. More than 65,000 terrified Rohingyas have fled across the border to Bangladesh.
The latest brutal crackdown began in October after a series of attackstargeting police and military near Myanmar's north-west border with Bangladesh. Nine police were killed. An armed group known as Haraka al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), said by the International Crisis Group to be led by a committee of Rohingyas living in Saudi Arabia, is believed responsible. The ICG has warned of a new Muslim insurgencycentred on Rakhine; a UN spokeswoman said failure to address the Rohingya grievances provided a "perfect breeding ground for violent extremists".
The UN describes the Rohingya as among the world's most persecuted people. Since Myanmar stripped them of their citizenship rights and rendered them stateless in 1982, they have been subjected to a campaign of "grinding dehumanisation", the UN says. Many hoped that Ms Suu Kyi, herself a renowned human rights campaigner, would stand up against persecution of minorities once she took power as "State Counsellor". But even if she was inclined to intervene, a junta-era constitution gives her almost no control over the military. It stopped her from becoming president. The military retained a quarter of the seats in parliament, and installed a hardline general as vice-president. The constitution says the army chief can take over in a crisis.
Any confrontation with the military risks Ms Suu Kyi's already shaky hold on power. Outside pressure is one path forward. Though domestic political considerations make it inadvisable for Ms Suu Kyi to seek it, her actions seem to invite it. In September she asked the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to head a commission to try to find solutions. After the Malaysian Prime Minister described Myanmar's treatment of Rohingyas as "genocide", Ms Suu Kyi called an unprecedented informal meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in December. The result was less than decisive, but it was perhaps a start: a Myanmar government press release following the meeting said it was ready to grant humanitarian access and to keep ASEAN members informed of developments in Rakhine state.
The Australian government should be adding to the pressure on Myanmar to stop the persecution in Rakhine, to let humanitarian aid in, and to allow independent investigations of the abuse allegations. The UN human rights envoy for Myanmar is on a 12-day investigative visit to the country. That should be a catalyst for concerted, united pressure by Australia and other countries in the region working with the UN to bring an end to the persecution.
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