Hunter Marston is a Washington-based analyst of Southeast Asian politics.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Burma this week, where he’ll be meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the former dissident who has effectively become her country’s senior leader. It’s going to be a fraught encounter.
Aung San Suu Kyi will have the unpleasant task of explaining why her country’s security forces have just staged a violent campaign that has driven more than 600,000 people – members of the beleaguered Muslim Rohingya minority – into neighboring Bangladesh. Tillerson will have to convey Washington’s intense concern about the situation without prompting a collapse in its ties to Burma, which is both a fragile young democracy and a place of great geopolitical significance.
Burma is now at a more consequential crossroads politically than it was in 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept into power on the wave of a popular vote, or 2011, when the military first convened a semi-civilian parliament following the first national elections in two decades. Democratic institutions have had little time to take root. The constitution (which dates back to the days of the old junta) still gives sweeping powers to the military.
If the United States and its Western allies condemn Burma too harshly, they could end up empowering the military, which might conclude that it has nothing to lose by re-asserting is dominance over Aung San Suu Kyi. Even if the generals don’t go that far, they may well seek the closer embrace of India and China, which are all too comfortable looking the other way on human rights. This could delay or derail Burma’s progress toward a freer society.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s position is critical. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her resistance to the old military dictatorship, she has long been lauded as the living symbol of her nation’s yearning for democracy. Now, her legacy has been seriously tarnished by her refusal to condemn those within her own government who are behind the killings, rapes and acts of terror perpetrated against the Rohingya in northwestern Rakhine state since late August.
How should the United States respond? Above all it must remain engaged and pragmatic, and it should focus on supporting Burma’s nascent democratic institutions. Aung San Suu Kyi earned ferocious international criticism for a televised speech she made in September. She refrained from condemning the violence against the Rohingya and claimed that the government needed more time to investigate the events.
However justified the criticism may be, Tillerson should parse Aung San Suu Kyi’s words carefully. Former U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell said he believes the Burmese leader is signaling an openness to cooperating with foreign governments and international aid organizations. But she must balance this openness with raging Buddhist nationalism among the ethnic majority Burman population even as she strives to keep the trust of the country’s long-dominant military.
Rather than condemning Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to prevent the bloodshed, foreign aid agencies and diplomats should seek ways to support local civil-society organizations that promote inter-ethnic and religious dialogue. While in Burma, Tillerson should reaffirm U.S. support for Burma’s civilian government and seek out potential areas of cooperation with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party on bringing peace and stability to Rakhine state. Among the most urgent aims: negotiating access for humanitarian relief to afflicted populations and launching efforts to resettle divided communities, which have seen Rohingya as well as Rakhine Buddhists uprooted by violence.
Such moves require care. The Burmese people are extremely wary of the motives of international organizations and perceive Western media as biased in favor of international Islamic movements. The Buddhist majority is increasingly turning away from its long-held positive views of the West amid the current crisis.
All this plays into the hands of the military. Deeply resented after decades of oppressive rule, the military is now growing in popularity. This shift in attitudes, bolstered by anti-Rohingya violence and pro-Buddhist nationalism, could spell disaster for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.
Tillerson should underscore that the U.S. government supports Aung San Suu Kyi’s party’s efforts to restore peace and order in Rakhine state and will not condone rights abuses committed by the military. But he should also stress that the United States still places its trust in Aung San Suu Kyi and remains committed to its support for democratic institutions.
If the State Department is serious about maintaining influence in Burma and supporting the country’s democratic consolidation, it should act swiftly by financially backing Aung San Suu Kyi’s proposals to repatriate Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh and to provide them with a path to citizenship, something they have been long been denied by discriminatory laws.
Working through the U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington should step up its efforts to strengthen civil-society organizations, peacekeepers and interfaith groups, all of which reinforce a democratic citizenry and will increase the chances of a stable political transition in the long run.
Such a position will require avoiding outright condemnation, which will only sow bitterness and anger toward the West, and instead adopting pragmatic engagement with Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. With the spotlight on Tillerson’s visit Wednesday, Burma’s goodwill is the United States’ to lose.