In November 2017, during the height of the violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, the UN was forced to withdraw its resident coordinator, Renata Lok-Dessallien, for failing to give priority to human rights.
The Canadian Lok-Dessallien ignored all warnings of an impending genocide in exchange for access and good relations with the civilian and military authorities. This was not the finest hour for a global agency who’s founding raison d’être is to save humanity from the scourge of war.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the UN is now trying to repair its tarnished record in Myanmar by promoting highly improbable stories of their heroic exploits.
Take for example a story which appeared in the Bangkok Post yesterday on how the new UN Resident Coordinator, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, on her inaugural visit to the country managed to save it from a military coup by “inadvertently acted as a peacemaker between Myanmar's top civilian leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the army commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.”
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 decadesDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Delicate power balance
This myth of the military coup is a common argument used by the UN and western leaders to justify their complete inaction in the face of genocide. 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 democratically 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 regard to Myanmar’s progress toward democracy and normalization 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 toward democracy that the country has made so far. Yet even this would be a far more generous description of the situation than is warranted.
Myth of Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintliness
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.
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, they 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.
Lifting of sanctions
But also they have become rich. The lifting of sanctions, which followed the apparent moves toward 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 and the UN. 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 the UN in particular have allowed this game to cripple our response to the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.