The received wisdom in Western diplomatic circles is that the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar betrays the limits of the authority of the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and that the genocide is happening because the military is imposing this on the country.
This is also the rationale Western diplomats use for why they have been reserved in their condemnation of the country’s authorities. The idea is that power in Myanmar is in a very delicate balance between the malevolent forces of the military establishment and the benevolent forces of the democractically elected civilian government. Attacking the (civilian) government for the excesses of the military would only serve to undermine their power and authority in this equation, and would thus serve only to hand more power to those who perpetrate the genocide against the Rohingya.
The polite way to describe this situation is to say that Ms Suu Kyi’s government and our own diplomatic corps are in a very vulnerable position with regards to Myanmar’s progress towards democracy and normalisation of relations with the rest of the world. The less polite way to say it is that for Ms Suu Kyi and for our own diplomats and leaders, genocide is a price worth paying for the modest gains towards democracy that the country has made so far.
Yet even this would be a far more generous description of the situation than is warranted. The problem for the myth of Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintliness, and for those of our diplomats who want to believe in that myth, is that there is precious little evidence of this epic power struggle between the military and the NLD government. And there is particularly little conflict over the Rohingya situation.
Power without accountability
The fact of the matter is that both the civilian government led by the NDP and the military are in perfectly comfortable positions. On the side of the military, they have attained the holy grail of politics: power without accountability. They control a quarter of the Parliament by constitutional provision, the have full autonomy and power in all ministries that are of direct interest to them, such as defence, internal security and foreign policy, and have a good looking human shield in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi which can absorb international criticism for them. This leaves them with a fully free hand to engage in all the humanitarian abuses they like.
Prior to “the move to democracy”, the military was very unpopular. Since those constitutional changes, they have become very popular, since all the problems they cause can be blamed on someone else: either the civilian government, or scapegoats like the Rohingya. But also, they have become rich. The lifting of sanctions which followed the apparent moves towards democracy enables the valorification of the country’s economic resources, the majority of which the leaders of the military also control. This is a win, win for them.
For the NLD this is also a perfectly acceptable arrangement. All the evidence we have about their leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, is that they have the same prejudices against the Rohingya that the old military juntas have been cultivating for decades. None of them are vested in the fate of the Rohingya. They also get to be seen as the ascendant power of the future in the country and get to establish their own power bases, after so many decades of military rule. And, of course, they also get a piece of the economic pie. What’s not to like?
If the two sides of the government really were at loggerheads, one would expect the governance of the country to be much more chaotic, and overt conflicts much more common. But while there are disagreements between the two power bases, they are nothing out of the bounds of normal for any normal government anywhere. In fact, the two sides are getting along much better than anyone would have expected when the NLD first swept to power.
Nevertheless, this narrative of perennial conflict between the two sides in government suits the purposes of both parties. It enables both sides to pass blame, recrimination and international pressure back and forth against each other in a perverse game of tennis which enables both sides to pursue their own goals while dodging accountability. And we have allowed this game to cripple our response to the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press)