Where Myanmar Went Wrong: From Democratic Awakening to Ethnic Cleansing

Scorched earth: houses burning after sectarian clashes in Sittwe, Myanmar, June 2012. (Staff/Reuters)

Late last year, when news broke that Myanmar’s military had been systematically killing members of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, much of the world was shocked. In recent years, Myanmar (also known as Burma) had been mostly a good news story. After decades of brutal dominance by the military, the country had seen the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, score an all-too-rare democratic triumph, winning the 2015 national elections in a landslide. The NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, an internationally celebrated dissident who had received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to democratize Myanmar, became Myanmar’s de facto head of state. Many analysts and officials concluded that the county was finally on the path to democratic rule. Support poured in from Western democracies, including the United States. Myanmar had long been isolated, relying almost exclusively on China, which was content to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Now, many hoped, Suu Kyi would lead the country into the Western-backed international order.

But such hopes overlooked a fundamental reality, one that was brought into stark relief by the slaughter of the Rohingya: Myanmar’s generals continue to control much of the country’s political and economic life. Suu Kyi must strike a delicate balance, advancing democratic rule without stepping on the generals’ toes. Her government has no power over the army and can do little to end the military’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya—which, in any event, enjoys massive popular support. Yet Suu Kyi has taken the bad hand she was dealt and made it worse. She has adopted an autocratic style. She has failed to make progress in the areas where she does have influence. And she has alienated erstwhile allies in the West.


Myanmar, which has a population of 54 million, officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups—but not the Rohingya. In fact, Myanmar authorities, including Suu Kyi, refuse to even use the term “Rohingya.” But the Rohingya are indisputably a distinct group with a long history in Myanmar. They are the descendants of people whom British colonial authorities, searching for cheap labor, encouraged to emigrate from eastern Bengal (contemporary Bangladesh) to the sparsely populated western regions of Burma in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, there are around 2.5 million Rohingya, who constitute the world’s largest stateless population. But fewer than half a million currently reside in Myanmar; the rest have fled decades of official repression and exclusion, often crossing the border into Bangladesh, where they inhabit sprawling, squalid refugee camps. Those who have remained in Myanmar are a subset of the country’s Muslim community. The majority of Myanmar’s Muslims live in urban areas, speak Burmese, have Burmese names, and are Myanmar citizens. The Rohingya are different: most speak a dialect of Bengali, have traditionally Muslim names, and have never received citizenship. The Rohingya in both Bangladesh and Myanmar have led unusually difficult lives even by the region’s humble standards, marked by poverty, the absence of legal status, and multifaceted discrimination. Owing to their lack of resources and extreme vulnerability, the Rohingya have largely failed in their attempts at political mobilization, which have generated further resentment against them. For instance, the 1950–54 Rohingya resistance movement, which demanded citizenship and an end to discriminatory policies, was eventually crushed by the army.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a militant Rohingya faction also emerged: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which formed in 2013. Most of the ARSA’s leaders are from Bangladesh or Pakistan, and some of them have received training from jihadist veterans of the wars in Afghanistan. (The group’s chief leader was born in Pakistan and later became an imam in Saudi Arabia.) ARSA likely has fewer than 600 active members. But Myanmar officials consider it a dangerous organization. In the early morning hours of August 25, 2017, for example, about 150 ARSA militants staged coordinated attacks on police posts and an army base in Rakhine State. The confrontation ended with the deaths of 77 ARSA fighters and 12 police officers and touched off a crackdown by Myanmar’s army, which burned down scores of Rohingya villages, murdered dozens of civilians, and launched a campaign of rape against Rohingya women and girls, according to Human Rights Watch. The UN labeled the operation ethnic cleansing, and others, including French President Emmanuel Macron and eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, have described it as an act of genocide.

By the end of 2017, 650,000 Rohingya had fled to neighboring Bangladesh, joining approximately 200,000 more who had escaped earlier waves of discrimination and violence in recent years. The large-scale forced migration seemed to have stopped by the end of last year. And last November, bowing to international pressure, Myanmar signed a Chinese-brokered agreement with Bangladesh for the tentative repatriation of the refugees to newly constructed villages. The fulfillment of this plan is at best questionable, however: it calls for Myanmar authorities to verify that each refugee did, in fact, reside in Myanmar before he or she can return. But most Rohingya have no documents to prove their prior residency. More important, few of them wish to return to a country that has persecuted them for generations.

Asad Ali, a 60-year-old Rohingya refugee, keeps his 23-year-old mentally ill son Foyas Noor on a chain as they beg for food and money at a market at Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, January 2018. (Tyrone Siu / REUTERS)


Myanmar’s government, and especially its army, known as the Tatmadaw, has earned worldwide condemnation for the campaign against the Rohingya. Last September, the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the army’s “brutal security operation” as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” Critics singled out Suu Kyi for at best inaction and at worst providing political cover for the army’s atrocities. Regardless of how one interpreted her motives, it was hard to square her actions with her status as a human rights icon. Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the revered Burmese revolutionary who shepherded his country to independence from the United Kingdom in the 1940s. In the 1990s, “the Lady,” as she is referred to in Myanmar, led the NLD to victory in national elections. But the military nullified the results and placed her under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years, before releasing her in 2010 as a gesture meant to highlight the government’s nascent liberalization program. The disappointment in her lack of action to stop the bloodshed—or, worse, her complicity in it—has been profound. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, one of numerous Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have expressed their disillusionment, lamented the silence of his “dearly beloved sister” and said that it was “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.”

But Suu Kyi’s response should not have come as a great surprise. She has a long record of downplaying the Rohingya’s plight. In March 2017, Suu Kyi’s office dismissed detailed descriptions of Rohingya women suffering sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar’s armed forces as “fake rape.” Once a defender of press freedom, Suu Kyi has remained mum about the case of two Reuters journalists who were arrested by the military last December after investigating the military’s involvement in the killing of ten Rohingya civilians. Suu Kyi’s government did create a commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to study the Rohingya issue, and has promised to implement its recommendations. But last January, Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN and a longtime Suu Kyi supporter, quit a separate ten-member international advisory board on the Rohingya crisis that the Myanmar government had set up, calling it “a whitewash” and “a cheerleading squad for the government.” As for Suu Kyi, Richardson said, “I like her enormously and respect her. But she has not shown moral leadership on the [Rohingya] issue.”

Suu Kyi deserves a great deal of criticism. But in faulting her for not publicly confronting the military, let alone restraining the generals, some critics have ignored two fundamental realities of contemporary Myanmar. First is the intensity of anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country. Hatred of the Rohingya is widespread and deep-seated, stirred up by influential extremist Buddhist monks who are the military’s political allies and who have incited violence against Rohingya. The ugly truth is that the vast majority of Burmese, including most of the NLD’s supporters, approve of the anti-Rohingya campaign. Making pro-Rohingya statements and gestures would be tantamount to political suicide for Suu Kyi and her government and would only strengthen the army’s public support.

Second, the civilian-led government has no control over the armed forces nor any means of reining them in. Even if Suu Kyi wanted to limit the military’s campaign against the Rohingya, it would be almost impossible to do so. Myanmar’s constitution, crafted by the military in 2008, ensures that the military remains far and away the country’s strongest political institution. Amending the constitution requires more than 75 percent of the votes in the legislature—and 25 percent of parliamentary seats are set aside for armed forces personnel, which ensures that no changes can be made without the military’s cooperation. In addition, the constitution reserves three key ministries for the armed forces: Defense, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs. The last of these oversees the General Administration Department, the administrative heart of the state, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of every regional and state-level government and the management of thousands of districts and townships. The constitution further safeguards the army’s interests by allo