In southeastern Bangladesh, already-crowded refugee camps are swelling each day with arrivals from Myanmar. Upward of 400,000 stateless Muslim Rohingya have crossed the border in the past three weeks, fleeing a brutal military campaign launched in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents on August 25. The Myanmar government has stated that 176 Rohingya villages have been emptied of their inhabitants, and satellite images show that more than 80 have been burned to the ground. Eyewitnesses describe indiscriminate killings of civilians.
But international alarm doesn’t end at the bloody accounts emerging from western Myanmar. Instead, it has extended into the country’s center, where the government of Nobel Peace Prize–winner Aung San Suu Kyi sits.
Despite reports that the military’s response to insurgent attacks has not distinguished between civilian and militant and despite the imploring of her fellow Nobel laureates, Suu Kyi’s office refuses to criticize the military. Likewise, few inside the country, subjected for so long to the military’s oppressive rule, appear to see anything wrong in the actions of soldiers.
Multiple interweaving factors have conspired to create this picture. Suu Kyi may be at the helm of a civilian government, but only because her party acquiesced in a delicate power-sharing deal with the military. This greatly limits her authority, both over that institution and over decisions that affect its interests. While a chorus of voices argue that her silence is tantamount to complicity in ethnic cleansing, Suu Kyi’s inaction may not necessarily indicate support for the military; rather, she knows that any attempt to rein it in will be read by the generals as a bid for control of their defense portfolio, thereby stripping them of a key and long-held point of leverage in national affairs.
This is political pragmatism of the coldest kind. Understanding the game Suu Kyi is playing—not just with the military, but also with her vast support base—helps to illuminate just how diametrically opposed the qualities that drive her international reputation and her domestic reputation are on this issue. Outside the country, many indeed consider her stance a moral failure, but that’s because the international community sees the Rohingya as victims. Inside the country, the narrative is wholly different. State-run media have repeatedly published dehumanizing propaganda. Only last year, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which often acts as a government mouthpiece, alluded to the Rohingya as “human fleas” that “we greatly loathe for their stench and for sucking our blood.” The majority of people in Myanmar appear to see the Rohingya as crusading Islamizers bent on dislodging Buddhism from its central position in society. This, therefore, makes them a greater menace to the young democracy than an invigorated military. The nascent insurgency has only fueled this sentiment and given floating anxieties about the intentions of the Rohingya a more concrete form.