Suu Kyi risks losing ground to military over Rakhine crisis

A soldier patrolling the Mayu river while boatmen deliver food to isolated communities near Buthidaung in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar, on Wednesday. Fears of terrorism have allowed the Myanmar military to gain support, said the Yangon Centre for Independent Research. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON • Locals like to joke that Myanmar has two governments. That's not very far from the truth.

De facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while buttressed by the parliamentary majority held by her National League for Democracy party, has no control over the police and key civil servants who oversee tax collection, land management and a variety of certifications. Those are under the watch of the military, via a Constitution guarded by soldiers guaranteed a quarter of all lawmaker seats.

Myanmar's civilian government has managed the democratic transition so far through careful positioning. While Ms Suu Kyi has not personally visited Rakhine state, nor spoken out in defence of the stateless Rohingya Muslims there amid troubling stories of military atrocities, she appointed former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to head a commission drawing up long-term solutions.

On Aug 24, the panel announced proposals that raised the hackles of Buddhist nationalists, such as reviewing the discriminatory citizenship law. Ms Suu Kyi's office promised to set up a ministerial committee to implement the suggestions as soon as possible.

That window for change shut mere hours later when Rohingya insurgents declared war on the Myanmar military with surprise attacks, provoking a brutal response. With some 400,000 Rohingya having fled across the border to Bangladesh, carrying stories of arson, rape and murder by Myanmar security forces, international condemnation of Ms Suu Kyi has been deafening. Her crime was to keep silent on what UN chief Antonio Guterres says is best described as ethnic cleansing.

To the outside world, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is now a fallen icon of democracy. Domestically, she risks losing ground to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, the man who controls what troops do in Rakhine state.

Having gone through five decades of junta rule, the Myanmar public remains wary of a military resurgence. The Tatmadaw - as the military is known locally - also has a chequered history fighting ethnic armed groups spread across the predominantly Buddhist country.

A soldier patrolling the Mayu river while boatmen deliver food to isolated communities near Buthidaung in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar, on Wednesday. Fears of terrorism have allowed the Myanmar military to gain support, said the Yangon Centre for Independent Research. PHOTO: REUTERS

But the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) occupies a different status in the public's imagination, fighting on behalf of people considered illegal immigrants from present-day Bangladesh, and having allegedly instilled fear among locals by killing government collaborators. Naypyitaw has declared the Arsa a terrorist organisation. Several local media outlets have followed suit, referring to them as "extremist terrorists" or "Bengali terrorists".

The emergence of Arsa has stoked fears that Islamist movements that have flared up in other parts of the region have now arrived in Myanmar. Analysts say this is not the case - for now.

"Arsa's goals are linked to securing rights for the Rohingya," conflict analyst Sidney Jones tells The Straits Times. "This is very different from establishing a caliphate."

Ms Jones, whose Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict recently published a paper on links between South-east Asian and Bangladeshi extremists, says the picture could change "if (Arsa) splinters and a more radical wing emerges that has ties to the global jihad".

The plight of the Rohingya has long been used as a rallying call by affiliates of extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But with the massive Rohingya exodus, concern is growing that desperation and misery could turn the teeming refugee camps in Bangladesh into recruiting grounds or even staging posts for extremists.

Such fears of terrorism have allowed the Tatmadaw to gain support, the Yangon Centre for Independent Research tells The Straits Times. "Daw Suu not clearly communicating to the public about her government's position regarding the Rakhine crisis is creating more uncertainty," the centre's spokesman says, using the Burmese honorific for Ms Suu Kyi. Should she eventually be written off as ineffectual, "this could shift power relations in favour of the Tatmadaw".

In a statement issued after her phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ms Suu Kyi blamed "terrorists" for distorting international perception with "a huge iceberg of misinformation". She has skipped this month's United Nations General Assembly - where the Rakhine issue is in the spotlight - and instead will be making a televised address to the nation on Tuesday.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in contrast, has appealed to nationalist sentiments. "The Tatmadaw will fully safeguard the sovereignty of Myanmar," he declared on Sept 1.

The military has aired its misgivings about the civilian administration. It complained that security operations in Rakhine were hampered after the civilian government lifted the requirement for households to register overnight guests. The Tatmadaw also said its earlier proposal to impose martial law in Rakhine state was rebuffed.

Beyond Rakhine, another troubling question is whether the latest events might fan larger anti-Muslim sentiment. In 2012, violent clashes between Muslims and Buddhists displaced more than 100,000 in Rakhine state and sowed the seeds of segregation, leading to the current conflict. In 2013, a series of anti-Muslim mob attacks erupted across central and eastern Myanmar, with one riot in Meiktila leaving more than 40 people dead.

Four years on, the threat of communal hostility and nationalist agitation has not gone away. On Sunday night, a mob of some 70 people, some carrying machetes, stoned the house of a Muslim family in central Myanmar's Taungdwingyi. According to a report by DVB media group, the mob tried to move on to a nearby mosque, but were prevented from getting close by a police barricade. In response, they smashed the doors of neighbouring houses. No casualties were reported.

Should future incidents spiral out of control, Myanmar's civilian government, which has so far managed to stay the course in the democratic transition, may find itself facing louder calls to hand over the wheel.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2017, with the headline Suu Kyi risks losing ground to military over Rakhine crisis. Subscribe