Do not be too quick to condemn Aung San Suu Kyi: Sir John Jenkins

I recall 15 years ago, as British Ambassador in Rangoon, a lengthy and winding river journey to the ancient capital of the Buddhist Rakhine Kingdom in Myanmar, at Mrauk U. It was magnificent, a testimony to the power and wealth of one of the most distinctive polities of early modern Myanmar. Rakhine, or Arakan, was also where some of the key battles of the World War II were fought; my Royal Marine uncle was there.

Tension and fear were running high after 96 people — alleged insurgents and 12 security personnel — were killed on Friday in attacks on about 30 police posts

Now we know Rakhine for different reasons. It has become the center of a dangerous conflict between a Myanmar state in the process of reconstructing itself after more than five decades of military dictatorship, and radicalized elements in the Bengali-speaking Muslim community in the north, widely if not universally known as Rohingya.

It is tempting to take sides, especially as it is largely accepted that there has been massive discrimination for decades and the Rohingya have been subject to sustained brutal treatment by the Myanmar security forces, including forced displacement, the burning of villages and the denial of citizenship.

But if we want to improve the situation, we need to understand before we condemn. This matters not just for Myanmar but for the Middle East too.

First, suffering in Myanmar is not the preserve of Rakhine Muslims. From 1958 onwards a harshly militarised system of rule sytematically oppressed everybody, including Burman, Shan, Mon, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Palaung, Kokang, Rakhine Buddhist and Rakhine Muslim and even army recruits themselves. It spared no one. It wrecked the economy, destroyed civil society and turned the many communities that make up Myanmar against each other.

So when people criticize Aung San Suu Kyi for not taking effective action immediately to halt the oppression of Rakhine Muslims, I groan. Even to start to repair the fabric of Burma’s wounded society is a generational task. Everyone has a claim on her attention and that of the new and hobbled Myanmar government.

Suu Kyi’s electoral triumph in 2015 is a fragile one. The 2008 constitution gives the military three key security ministries, a permanent blocking veto in Parliament and freedom from civilian oversight. It also blocked Suu Kyi from becoming president, leaving her as state counsellor and foreign minister. And this is the key to the current situation.

Suu Kyi needs to fix the economy so people see that democracy brings prosperity. She is trying — with Chinese support — to negotiate an end to long-running and highly dangerous insurgencies in the northern Shan states and in Kachin state, with immense implications for Myanmar’s international position.

It is untrue to say that Myanmar’s de facto leader does not care about the plight of the Rohingya, but she needs international understanding to deal with that and other challenges.

Sir John Jenkins

And she needs to tread carefully. The military’s suspicion of democracy, separatism, ethnic minorities and international actors has not gone away. Other powerful groups, including the largely Buddhist Arakan National Party and the Arakan Army, have their own ambitions.
It is simply untrue to suggest that Suu Kyi does not care about Rakhine Muslims. She does: I know. In 2016 she agreed, uniquely, to chair a Cabinet committee on peace and development there and invited the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to form an advisory commission on Rakhine state. Its report was released on Thursday in Rangoon. Suu Kyi has committed herself and the government to implement as many of its recommendations as possible in such a complex environment.
Not everyone wants progress. Early on Friday morning, probably timed to coincide with events in Rangoon, there was an attack on more than 20 police posts by about 150 armed insurgents probably belonging to the extremist group Harakat Al-Yaqin. This group’s leaders have previous experience of violent insurgency and their cause has been championed by Al-Qaeda, Daesh and extremist groups in Pakistan.
We do not need another destructive insurgency with transnational connections to the most dangerous groups in the Middle East and North Africa. There is clearly a huge responsibility on the Myanmar government to improve the situation quickly. But the international community should also help, not simply criticize.
One of the problems Myanmar faced upon independence in 1947 was the absence of reliable allies. We cannot allow that to happen again. ASEAN, where Indonesia and Singapore have sought to be helpful, has a role to play. So does Bangladesh. And so do the major Arab states, not least Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom’s new international activism is welcome. It sees clearly the threats from organized and violent revolutionary and insurgent movements. This has led to an important reboot of policy toward Iraq, for example. It would be wonderful if the same constructive approach — in contrast to some of its neighbors — could be adapted to the different but equally troubling circumstances of Myanmar and other parts of South East Asia. Engaging with the Myanmar government on ways to address the immediate economic and social vulnerabilities of the Rakhine Muslims would be an excellent step.
If we have learnt one thing from the past decade it is the interconnectedness of all extremist threats: what happens in a remote part of Myanmar will affect us all in the end. Insurgencies do not end well for anyone. And Suu Kyi deserves our support. If she is abandoned, there is no alternative. We shall get another militarised regime. That would be a disaster for everyone, including Rakhine Muslims.
• Sir John Jenkins is Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain. He is also a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Until January 2015, he was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia.