Aung San Suu Kyi: the smiling face of Myanmar’s military regime

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was released in 2010 after nearly two decades of house arrest by Myanmar (formerly Burma)’s military regime. “She is kind of the Mandela of our moment”, lauded U2 front man Bono. “She’s a character of great grace. Her struggle has become a symbol of what’s best about our humanity and worst.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, today Myanmar’s de facto ruler, has now fallen from grace. Her failure to protest Myanmar’s genocidal military offensive against the Rohingya has been roundly condemned. Five Nobel Peace Prize winners, including South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called on Suu Kyi to speak out. In September, Tutu stated, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.

Since the first week of September, the military offensive has driven nearly 380,000 Rohingya from their homes in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, forcing them to seek asylum in neighbouring Bangladesh. Suu Kyi has deflected criticism from the military, blaming “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation”.

In a televised address on 19 September, Suu Kyi praised the Myanmar police and army for their “great courage”, asserting that they were bringing “peace, rule of law and development” to Rakhine. Suu Kyi even refuses to use the name Rohingya to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority, who have been denied Myanmar citizenship since 1982.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has described the offensive as “ethnic cleansing” and called on Myanmar’s military to grant aid agencies access to Rakhine. Various Western leaders have echoed this call, but stopped short of ending the sale of arms to the regime or imposing trade sanctions. Instead, hypocritical hand wringing about Suu Kyi’s apparent abandonment of human rights has been the order of the day.

Prior to Suu Kyi’s televised address, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson declared, “Aung San Suu Kyi is rightly regarded as one of the most inspiring figures of our age, but the treatment of the Rohingya is alas besmirching the reputation of Burma”.

Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop has called for a ceasefire in Rakhine, despite the one-sided nature of the conflict. “We want to see a ceasefire, an end to the violence and then for the Rohingyas to be able to return to Rakhine state”, she told the ABC’s AM program. Meanwhile, the Australian government is reportedly offering up to $25,000 to Rohingya refugees on Manus Island to return home.

The Indian government, competing with China for influence in Myanmar, is pursuing a similar line. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi met with Suu Kyi on 6 September. Modi said that he shared the Myanmar’s government’s “concerns about extremist violence in Rakhine state and the violence against security forces and also how innocent lives have been affected”. The previous day, Indian cabinet minister Kiren Rijiju described Rohingyas in India as “illegal immigrants [who] need to be deported as per law”.

To the leaders of Western capitalist states, Oxford-educated Suu Kyi offers a friendly face for business: business with Myanmar’s military junta, that is. Little wonder, then, that Myanmar’s military regime has undertaken a “democratic” makeover in recent years, bringing Suu Kyi’s NLD in the from the cold.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a Communist turned nationalist, who collaborated with Myanmar’s Japanese occupiers during World War Two before switching sides to join the British in overseeing the transition to independence. Aung San was assassinated in 1947, a year before independence.

Myanmar’s military has dominated the nation’s economy since general Ne Win, formerly a close confidant of Aung San, took power in a military coup in 1962. Modelling himself on Mao Zedong, Ne Win declared himself “chairman”. Adopting socialist rhetoric, Ne Win nationalised all land, industry and commerce and set up a one-party totalitarian regime. The planned economy he established was not socialism for the masses, but rather “socialism” for army officers, whose plunder of the nation’s wealth of mineral resources continues.

Once the world’s largest exporter of rice, by the mid-1970s Myanmar barely produced enough to feed its own population. Per capita income fell from $670 in 1960 to $200 in 1989. Rising fuel prices in 1988 spurred a popular uprising, forcing Ne Win into retirement.

In the midst of the “8-8-88” (8 August 1988) uprising, Suu Kyi returned from Britain, where she had lived since the mid-1960s. She was in close contact with several retired army officers who had grown disillusioned with Ne Win’s authoritarian regime. Together they founded the NLD, and Suu Kyi soon became the party’s general secretary.

In 1990, the NLD won a landslide electoral victory, gaining 80 percent of the vote. The military junta refused to recognise the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. Throughout her years of detention, Suu Kyi did little to advocate for Myanmar’s oppressed ethnic minorities, according to exiled democracy activist Maung Zarni.

“The generals and Aung San Suu Kyi sing from the same Buddhist nationalist hymnbook”, Zarni told the Dhaka Tribune, on 14 September. “Their vision of Burma does not have much space for Muslims – and no space for Rohingyas.”

In the early 1990s, the military regime began liberalising the economy to attract foreign investment. The pace of change wasn’t fast enough for Western governments, who eyed the nation’s vast natural resources, including gold, jade, timber, rubies, oil and natural gas. When the military failed to relinquish power to the NLD in 1990, the US and other Western governments slapped sanctions on the country.

In 2007, Myanmar’s generals once again brutally suppressed a popular uprising, known as the Saffron Revolution. A year later, Cyclone Nargis – Myanmar’s worst natural disaster in decades – added to the regime’s woes. Limping from one crisis to another, and hungry for foreign investment, the generals concluded that a democratic makeover was in order.

They introduced a new constitution the following year to placate Western criticism. However, the constitution empowers the military commander in chief to appoint and control all cabinet members in charge of portfolios relating to the state security apparatus, including defence, home affairs and border affairs. The commander in chief can also veto any presidential and vice presidential candidates, and any attempt by an elected government to amend the constitution. A quarter of all parliamentary seats are allocated to the military.

Thein Sein, the country’s fourth highest-ranking general, in 2010 resigned his military post to run as a civilian for president in an election dominated by the military’s front organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Party; he remained president until the parliament elected a member of the NLD following the 2015 general election. The release of Suu Kyi in 2010 was the first step in her political rehabilitation as the generals opened a dialogue with Washington.

The farcical nature of this “democratic reform” was of little concern to the Obama administration, which ramped up its “pivot to Asia” to push back China’s growing economic influence in the region. When Suu Kyi won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament in a 2012 by-election, the White House hailed it as “an important step in Burma’s democratic transformation”.

Suu Kyi’s road to the presidency is blocked by a constitutional clause that prohibits her from taking office because she married a foreigner and has two British sons. However, in 2015, the NLD won the national election by a landslide, securing 80 percent of the vote and a large majority in the nation’s assembly and bringing Suu Kyi to the position of de facto head of state.

While the establishment media hailed Suu Kyi’s rise as the flowering of democracy, in reality the military remains in charge, as the recent offensive in Rakhine shows. Behind the conflict lies the armed forces’ long history of systematic suppression of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic minorities, which make up 30 percent of the nation’s 51 million population.

The unfettered plunder of the nation’s natural resources under the army has displaced many ethnic minorities and led to armed insurgencies. Human trafficking has become a profitable industry for Myanmar’s officer caste: men, women and children are smuggled to neighbouring south-east Asian countries for sexual exploitation, domestic service and forced labour.

“Rakhine is rich in natural resources, especially in the predominantly Rohingya north of the state”, according to Maung Zarni. The Myanmar military has used the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)’s attacks against Burmese border guard posts over the last year to wage a campaign of fear and stoke Islamophobia among the nation’s Buddhist majority. However, the ARSA is a poorly armed group of Rohingyas seeking to resist displacement from their land.

The tragedy now unfolding in Rakhine illustrates once again the cynical use of the term “human rights” by leaders of the imperialist states and the UN. So long as a democracy icon will be the smiling face of Myanmar’s brutal military regime, keeping the door open to foreign investment, it’s business as usual for Western diplomats and entrepreneurs in Myanmar.