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Why Amnesty was wrong to strip Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi of top honour

‘Speaking up’ will make her look good with the international Press, but it will do nothing for the challenges Myanmar faces. The international community needs to strengthen her hands, not weaken them.

Updated: Nov 21, 2018 14:20:31

By Abhijit Dutta

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends the ASEAN-China Summit in Singapore, November 14, 2018 (REUTERS)

The vilification of Aung San Suu Kyi continues unabated. Whether it is Amnesty International or United States vice-president, Mike Pence, no one, it seems, can wait to signal their virtue by throwing an egg at her face. The gravest charge against Suu Kyi is that she does not speak up, she does not issue condemnations against the Myanmar’s military, who stand accused of brutalities. Amnesty, in a letter to Suu Kyi (informing her that they no longer thought she was an ambassador of conscience), wrote: “Our expectation was that you would continue to use your moral authority to speak out against injustice wherever you saw it, not least within Myanmar itself.”

What a lowly expectation! While under house arrest — the period during which Suu Kyi acquired most of her fans — all that Suu Kyi could do was speak up. She had the luxury to read and write, play the piano, meditate, and be a symbol. Today, she has a job to do: remake a country that has systematically hollowed out its institutions over the past 50 years and ensure that it stays the course on its democratic transition.

Speaking up against injustice is important, but it is more useful to address its causes. We must ask: speak up to what end? Condemning the military does not help refugees petrified to return to their homeland, nor does it create a better future for them. A safe and harmonious environment and the prospect of citizenship does.

How do you build a safe and harmonious environment? By ensuring rule of law and security for all. How do you ensure rule of law in a region riven with communal distrust and hate, and where the law and order forces are themselves culpable for violence? Well, you start by asking why distrust and hate exist, and why the law and order forces are so willing to kill, burn and rape. Distrust and hate exist because of immediate and longue durée histories burned into the social psyche of the Burmese people, and the soldiers who kill and plunder are part of that society. Equally, because those soldiers do not answer to Suu Kyi.



In the international Press, Suu Kyi, who is state counsellor, is typically described by the epithet ‘de facto leader of Myanmar’, to say that even though she is not the official Head of State, she runs the government. And she does — she runs as much of the government that she is allowed to by the 2008 Constitution — but it is a very tight space. The Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces is the ‘Supreme Commander’, meaning that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his troops do not take orders from her.

Suu Kyi does not control the military, but the Senior General controls much of what she does. The minister for defence is a serving military officer appointed by the commander-in-chief, as are the ministers for home affairs and border affairs. Home Affairs has control over the police force, the Bureau of Special Investigation, prison services and the general administration Department — basically, the essential apparatus of the State. And that’s just peacetime. The Constitution provides clear opportunities for the military to take over if there “arises or there is sufficient reason to arise”, a State of emergency. If, say, a riot — whether spontaneous or instigated — were to break out in Rakhine State, or if there was another attack by terrorist groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, Min Aung Hlaing would be well within his Constitutional rights to step in and do as he pleases.

Amending the Constitution is impossible without the military’s support. Any amendment to the Constitution requires more than 75% of the parliament to vote for it, which effectively hands the military a veto because 25% of the seats are reserved for military officers, all of whom are in active service and answerable to Min Aung Hlaing.

Suu Kyi has sought to navigate this precarious balance in military-civilian relations through careful alliances, including with former generals, and slowly building up fundamental capabilities throughout the political and legislative systems. She has succeeded in repealing draconian laws such as the 1975 State Protection Act (aka the ‘Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts’) and the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, legislation that the junta used to suppress political dissidents and activists.

She has sought to implement the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and strengthen the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development in Rakhine. But it is a slow and arduous task and much remains to be done, not least because within Myanmar there is little sympathy for the Rohingyas, whom the rest of the country see as interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh, similar to the situation in Assam.

Speaking up will make her look good with the international press, but it will do nothing for the challenges Myanmar faces.

The international community needs to strengthen her hand, not weaken it.

Abhijit Dutta is the author of Myanmar in the World: Journeys through a Changing Burma

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 21, 2018 11:56:29

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