Commentary: Business as usual for the Rohingya, victims in a country under military sway

Commentary: Business as usual for the Rohingya, victims in a country under military sway

Once a beacon of hope, Myanmar’s civilian government reveals its limitations in turning things around in the country, especially when it comes to dealing with the Rohingya issue in Rakhine, says Abdullah Yusuf.

DUNDEE, Scotland: As the forced expulsion of the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar gathers pace and attracts increasing international condemnation, it’s clear that the world either ignores or misunderstands the truth behind Myanmar’s politics.

The violent campaign against the Rohingya is not the disease, but merely a symptom of a political system that has been failing for decades.

Aung Yan Suu Kyi taking office in 2016 was widely perceived as an event heralding a new democracy, in which power from an authoritarian military regime was transferred and handed back to the people.

Suu Kyi’s election became synonymous with the success of peaceful resistance in the name of freedom, a triumph over a long-embedded and despotic junta.

But in reality, nothing changed – and the rapidly escalating Rohingya crisis confirms that the supposed transfer of power has done little to resolve the tensions in the civil-military relationship.

Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to give speech on Rakhine
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke on the situation in Rakhine yesterday (Sep 19), in a speech one critic calls "a sad joke". (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

This failure stems partly from the legacy of the military regime, and partly from Myanmar’s geostrategic significance and natural resources, which impel the country’s powerful allies to ward off any effective United Nations Security Council resolutions against the state’s grave human rights violations.


In domestic terms, Suu Kyi’s rise to power has ultimately made little or no meaningful constitutional impact.

Myanmar’s constitution of 2008 guarantees the military 25 per cent of seats in Myanmar’s parliament, the Assembly of the Union, yet the constitution can only be amended with the votes of more than 75 per cent of parliamentarians. This de facto military veto safeguards the same regime that has held sway since the 1960s.

Suu Kyi might be the effective head of state, but it’s the military that calls the shots.

This in turn means there’s little hope for resolution in the current Rohingya crisis. Citizenship laws dating back to 1982 bar the recognition of Rohingya as an ethnic group, and prevent them from holding Myanmar passports.

By excluding the Rohingya from the 2015 census, the regime scotched any hope of ending the decades of human rights violations the Rohingys have suffered.

Both before and since Suu Kyi took power, the Myanmar government has responded to the Rohingya’s deteriorating situation by simply digging in its heels. The former president, Thein Sein, declared in 2012 that the only solution to the crisis was to export the Rohingya to a “third country” or leave their future to the United Nations.

Myanmar soldiers in Rakhine State, the scene of a recent surge in violence between a shadowy
Myanmar soldiers in Rakhine State, the scene of a recent surge in violence between a shadowy militant group and the army. (Photo: AFP)

Today, the notionally civilian government seems no more able or willing to take responsibility for the problem.

Suu Kyi might have been a beacon of hope, but behind the scenes, it’s been business as usual. 

With the military effectively in charge, those trying to help the Rohingya have their hands tied firmly behind their backs and the domestic impetus for change is relatively weak – especially now it’s becoming apparent that the persecution of the Rohingya is not some frenzied, chaotic outburst of ethnic violence, but a concerted national policy.


Given Suu Kyi’s long history in the democratic struggle, the world rightly expects her to stand up for the Rohingya. But to do so would risk going against the will of her own people, and might even motivate the military to replace her.

They have the constitutional power to do so; if she strays too far from popular opinion, they could soon have the backing of the people in Myanmar.

So when Suu Kyi says she’s just a politician and “not Mother Theresa”, she is not balancing competing interests and deterring aggressors, but settling into a life of grisly realpolitik. Meanwhile, the Rohingya crisis damages her credibility among those who campaigned for her release.

Myanmar's NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi smiles with army members during the handover cerem
Aung San Suu Kyi smiles with army members during the handover ceremony between outgoing President Thein Sein and incoming President Htin Kyaw at the presidential palace in Nay Pyi Taw in 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Ye Aung Thu)

Certain other outside powers, however, take a different stance. China, India, and Russia lend Myanmar unwavering support, and back the government line that the crisis stems not from extreme structural problems in the Myanmar polity but from Rohingya “terrorism” that has destabilised a period of peace.

The European Union has called on the UN and ASEAN to help, but without some kind of consensus, there is no international mandate to exert pressure.

It seems the supposed democratic sea-change of 2015 has done nothing to solve the civil-military tension in Myanmar. Though soldiers and generals might not be in direct control, they keep their guns on show, and make sure a small but crucial number of personnel are installed in politically active roles.

While they can no longer make overarching changes to the political system, they have successfully stymied any constitutional efforts to undercut their power any further.

The result is a political system in limbo, and a government with little incentive to change its ways.

In response to international criticism, Myanmar offered some refugees the opportunity to return, but only on the condition that they produce papers confirming their citizenship – papers which the 1982 laws prevent them from holding in the first place.

The Myanmar government seems reluctant to acknowledge that the problem is spiralling out of control; instead, with China and Russia’s backing, it’s trying to convince the world that this very fragile country is far more stable than it actually is.

And so the military retains its power, even as its actions reveal Myanmar’s once-celebrated democracy to be the elaborate public relations stunt it is.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya face horrendous human rights abuses – victims of a political regime crippled by cynicism and inertia.

Abdullah Yusuf is lecturer in politics at the University of Dundee. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Read also:

A first commentary on Aung San Suu Kyi's tarnished image.

A second commentary on the political challenges she faces.

A third commentary on the moral obligations neighbouring India faces in dealing with the Rohingya crisis.