Can anyone stop Burma’s hard-line Buddhist monks?
In 2011, the dictator Than Shwe stepped aside, ceding power to a quasi-civilian government as part of a carefully scripted power shift that took direct control of the country away from the military but preserved much of its political power. This transition also helped bring Myanmar back into the international community and, significantly, led to the lifting of sanctions. The Rohingya, though, saw little benefit from these developments. They are deeply reviled in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they are seen as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though they consider themselves native to Myanmar. Following bouts of sectarian violence in 2012 and ’13, more than 120,000 Rohingya were confined to temporary camps within Myanmar.
When questioned about the plight of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has offered little support. Instead, she has repeatedly said there is a lack of understanding, both domestically and internationally, of the complexities of the Rohingya situation. She has also cited the lack of “rule of law” as the reason for many of the group’s problems. Some of Suu Kyi’s backers believe she is unable to criticize the military and its campaign against the Rohingya because of her awkward power-sharing arrangement. The most ardent of these supporters fear a coup that would put the military back in power. Suu Kyi would lose her hard-won status as Myanmar’s civilian leader if she stepped out of line.
Suu Kyi’s own comments and actions, though, indicate something different. While speaking in Singapore in August, she dispelled rumors that relations between the civilian government and the military had deteriorated sufficiently that the civilian government should be fearful of a military coup. More tellingly, she has welcomed into her inner circle a small group of former diplomats who defended the junta while she was under house arrest.
The most prominent among these officials is Kyaw Tint Swe, who will speak in Suu Kyi’s stead today at the UN. It will be a familiar setting for him: He served as Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN for much of the early 2000s, defending the military government against international condemnation for its human-rights abuses and violent crackdown on popular uprisings. In speeches and statements infused with isolationist paranoia, he depicted an alternate reality of the situation in Myanmar. “Myanmar has long been a victim of a systematic disinformation campaign launched by anti-government elements, generously funded by their foreign supporters,” he wrote as part of a lengthy response to criticisms by the United States and other countries of Myanmar’s human-rights failures in November 2007.
Kobsak Chutikul, a retired Thai diplomat, consulted an advisory panel created by Suu Kyi to address the Rohingya crisis. In July, he quit, citing a lack of meaningful progress. Kyaw Tint Swe and other former diplomats now working for Suu Kyi’s government “have done this all their career, it is kind of second nature for them,” he said. “It is second nature to deflect any criticism and try to stand up for the regime, whatever regime is in place.” They are, he said, “defense lawyers who go to bat for their clients no matter what.”