NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — As world capitals go, this is one of the weirdest. Six-lane highways with scarcely a car on them could serve as runways. The roads connect concealed ministries and vast convention centers. A white heat glares over the emptiness. There is no hub, gathering place or public square — and that is the point.
Military leaders in Myanmar wanted a capital secure in its remoteness, and they unveiled this city in 2005. Yangon, the bustling former capital, was treacherous; over the decades of suffocating rule by generals, protests would erupt. So it is in this undemocratic fortress, of all places, that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, long the world’s champion of democracy, spends her days, contemplating a spectacular fall from grace: the dishonored icon in her ghostly labyrinth.
Seldom has a reputation collapsed so fast. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated Burmese independence hero, Aung San, endured 15 years of house arrest in confronting military rule. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. Serene in her bravery and defiance, she came to occupy a particular place in the world’s imagination and, in 2015, swept to victory in elections that appeared to close the decades-long military chapter in Myanmar history. But her muted evasiveness before the flight across the Bangladeshi border of some 620,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, has prompted international outrage. Her halo has evaporated.
After such investment in her goodness, the world is livid at being duped. The city of Oxford stripped her of an honor. It’s open season against “The Lady,” as she is known. Why can she not see the “widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces” to which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded during a brief visit this month, actions the State Department defined last week as “ethnic cleansing”?
Perhaps because she sees something else above all: that Myanmar is not a democracy. It’s a quasi democracy at best, in delicate transition from military rule, a nation at war with itself and yet to be forged. If she cannot walk the fine line set by the army, all could be lost, her life’s work for freedom squandered. This is no small thing. Not to recognize her dilemma — as the West has largely failed to do so since August — amounts to irresponsible grandstanding.The problem is with what the West wants her to be. Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general who delivered a report on the situation in Rakhine State, in western Myanmar, just as the violence erupted there, told me that people in the West were incensed about Aung San Suu Kyi because, “We created a saint and the saint has become a politician, and we don’t like that.”
Certainly Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared unmoved. She has avoided condemning the military for what the United Nations has called a “human rights nightmare.” She shuns the word “Rohingya,” a term reviled by many in Myanmar’s Buddhist majority as an invented identity. Her communications team has proved hapless, and opacity has become a hallmark of her administration as she has shunned interviews. At a rare appearance with Tillerson at the Foreign Ministry here, she said, “I don’t know why people say that I’ve been silent.” It’s untrue, she insisted. “I think what people mean is that what I say is not interesting enough. But what I say is not meant to be exciting, it’s meant to be accurate. And it’s aimed at creating more harmony.”
“Harmony” is a favorite expression of hers, as is “rule of law.” Both lie at a fantastic distance from the reality in Myanmar. It is a fragmented country still confronting multiple ethnic insurgencies and “always held together by force,” as Derek Mitchell, a former American ambassador, told me. Since independence from British imperial rule in 1948, the army, known as the Tatmadaw, has ruled most of the time, with ruinous consequences.
In many respects, the military continues to rule. When her National League for Democracy won the 2015 election, Aung San Suu Kyi did not become president. The world rejoiced — and glossed over this detail. The 2008 Constitution, crafted by the military, bars her from the presidency because she has children who are British citizens. So she labors under the contrived honorific of state counselor. The Ministries of Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs — all the guns — remain under military control, as do the National Defense and Security Council and 25 percent of all seats in Parliament.
This was not a handover of power. It was a highly controlled, and easily reversible, cession of partial authority.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s decisions must be seen in this context. She is playing a long game for real democratic change. “She is walking one step by one step in a very careful way, standing delicately between the military and the people,” said U Chit Khaing, a prominent businessman in Yangon. Perhaps she is playing the game too cautiously, but there is nothing in her history to suggest she’s anything but resolute.
The problem is she’s a novice in her current role. As a politician, not a saint, it must be said that Aung San Suu Kyi has proved inept. This is scarcely surprising. She lived most of her life abroad, was confined on her return, and has no prior experience of governing or administering.
You don’t endure a decade and a half of house arrest, opt not to see your dying husband in England and endure separation from your children without a steely patriotic conviction. This is her force, a magnetic field. It can also be blinding. “Mother Suu knows best,” said David Scott Mathieson, an analyst based in Yangon. “Except that she’s in denial of the dimensions of what happened.”
The hard grind of politics is foreign to her. Empathy is not her thing. Take her to a refugee camp; she won’t throw her arms around children. She sees herself as incarnating the inner spirit of her country, a straight-backed Buddhist woman with a mission to complete what her father, whom she lost when she was 2, set out to do: unify the nation. Yet the road to that end remains vague. Even Myanmar’s ultimate identity — a Buddhist state dominated by her own ethnic Bamar majority or a genuinely federalist, multireligious union — remains unclear. Her voice is absent.
Could she, short of the military red lines that surround her, have expressed her indignation at the immense suffering of Rohingya civilians, and condemned the arson and killing that sent hundreds of thousands of terrified human beings on their way? Perhaps. But that would demand that she believes this is the essence of the story. It’s unclear that she does; she’s suspicious of the Rohingya claims and what she sees as manipulation of the media. It would also demand that she deem the political risk tolerable in a country that overwhelmingly supports her in her stance. Certainly she did not order the slaughter. Nor did she have the constitutional powers to stop it.
What is clear is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence has favored obfuscation. It has left the field open for a ferocious Facebook war over recent events. The Rohingya and Buddhists inhabit separate realities. There are no agreed facts, even basic ones. This is the contemporary post-truth condition. As the Annan report notes, “narratives are often exclusive and irreconcilable.”
In Rakhine State, where all hell broke loose last August, the poverty is etched in drawn faces with staring eyes. The streets of its capital, Sittwe, a little over an hour’s flight from Yangon, are dusty and depleted. Its beach is overrun with stray dogs and crows feeding on garbage. As the town goes, so goes all of Rakhine, now one of the poorest parts of Myanmar, itself a very poor country. The violence that ripped through the northern part of the state was a disaster foretold.
There was an earlier eruption, in 2012, when intercommunal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims left close to 200 people dead and about 120,000 people marooned in camps. There they have rotted for five years. Government promises have yielded nothing. The camps are closed off. Former Rohingya districts in town have been emptied, a shocking exercise in ghettoization.
I spoke by phone with Saed Mohamed, a 31-year-old teacher confined since 2012 in a camp. “The government has cheated us so many times,” he told me. “I have lost my trust in Aung San Suu Kyi. She is still lying. She never talks about our Rohingya suffering. She talks of peace and community, but her government has done nothing for reconciliation.”
Rakhine, also called Arakan, was an independent kingdom before falling under Burmese control in the late 18th century. Long neglect from the central government, the fruit of mutual suspicion, has spawned a Rakhine Buddhist independence movement, whose military wing is the Arakan Army. “We are suffering from 70 years of oppression from the government,” Htun Aung Kyaw, the general secretary of the Arakan National Party, whose objective is self-determination for the region, told me.
The steady influx over a long period of Bengali Muslims, encouraged by the British Empire to provide cheap labor, exacerbated Rakhine Buddhist resentments. The Muslim community has grown to about one-third of Rakhine’s population of more than 3.1 million and, over time, its self-identification as “Rohingya” has become steadily more universal.
Within Myanmar, this single word, “Rohingya,” resembles a fuse to a bomb. It sets people off. I could find hardly anybody, outside the community itself, even prepared to use it; if they did they generally accompanied it with a racist slur. The general view is that there are no Rohingya. They are all “Bengalis.”
U Nyar Na, a Buddhist monk, seemed a picture of serenity, seated at the window of a Sittwe monastery beside magenta robes hanging on a line. But when our conversation turned to the Rohingya, he bristled.
“The whole problem lies in that word; there are no Rohingya among the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar,” he told me, alluding to the indigenous peoples listed in connection with the country’s 1982 citizenship law. “This is not an existing ethnic group — they just created it. So if they believe it, the belief is false.”
He reached down for his smartphone, and found an internet image supposedly representing the secessionist plans of the “Bengali Muslims.” It showed Rakhine, shaded green, under the words: “Sovereign State of Rahamaland, an independent state of Rohingya people.” He looked at me as if to say, there, you see, empirical proof of their diabolical intent.
Such fears run deep. Aung San Suu Kyi is inevitably sensitive to them. A combination of more than a century of British colonial subjugation, the looming presence of China to the east and India to the west, with their 2.7 billion people (Myanmar has 54 million), and its own unresolved internal ethnic conflicts have marked the national psyche with a deep angst over sovereignty. U Ko Ko Gyi, a politician long imprisoned by the military but now in full support of the army’s actions in Rakhine, told me, “Our in-bone conviction from our ancestors is to resist outside pressure and fight until the last breath to survive.”
Myanmar, with its bell-shaped golden pagodas dotting the landscape, shimmering in the liquid light, often seems gripped these days by a fevered view of itself as the last bastion of Buddhism, facing down the global advance of Islam in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere. The Rohingya have come to personify these fears.
Many conversations here reminded me of my time covering the Balkan wars of the 1990s when Serbs, in the grip of a nationalist paroxysm, often dismissed the enemy — Bosnian Muslims, Kosovo Albanians — as nonexistent peoples. But as Benedict Anderson observed, all nations are “imagined communities.” The Rohingya exist because they believe they exist.
It does not matter when exactly the name was coined — dispute rages on this question — or when exactly the Muslims of Rakhine embraced it in their overwhelming majority. Nothing is more certain to forge ethno-national identity than oppression. By making Rakhine Muslims stateless — by granting them identity cards of various hues that at various times seemed to confer citizenship or its promise only to withdraw them — and by subjecting them to intermittent violence, the military of Myanmar and its Rakhine Buddhist militia sidekicks have done more than anyone to forge a distinct Rohingya identity.
Out of such desperation emerged the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, the Rohingya insurgent group whose attacks on several police outposts close to the Bangladeshi border on Aug. 25 ignited a devastating military response. A persecuted people will take up arms. When you attempt to destroy a people you don’t believe exists, fury may get the upper hand.
In September, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya already displaced in camps in Bangladesh, Aung San Suu Kyi told The Nikkei Asian Review she was puzzled as to why the exodus had continued after military operations slowed. She speculated: “It could be they were afraid there might be reprisals. It could be for other reasons. I am genuinely interested because if we want to remedy the situation, we’ve got to find out why — why all the problems started in the first place.”
Her tone, weirdly academic, seemed almost plaintive. The problems started because of an abject failure over decades. Military governments failed Rakhine Buddists; they failed Rakhine Rohingya even more, their policy laced through with racism. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own government has prolonged that failure. The arson, killing and rape followed. This should be clear.
It’s less clear what should be done now. More than half a million terrorized people find themselves homeless. Bangladesh and Myanmar announced an agreement last week to begin returning displaced people within two months, but details were murky. Repatriation is urgent, but contentious, and will be meaningless unless Myanmar lays out an unambiguous and consistent path to citizenship, or at least legal residency, for the Rohingya, who today constitute some 10 percent of all the world’s stateless people. Denying the possibility of citizenship to people resident in Myanmar for a long time is unworthy of the democracy Aung San Suu Kyi wants to forge as her last legacy.
This Burmese transition to democracy stands on a knife-edge. Its ultimate success is of critical importance, with forms of authoritarianism ascendant the world over. Criminal actions should be punished under the “rule of law” Aung San Suu Kyi cites so often. But the sanctions being called for by more than 20 senators and by groups including Human Rights Watch, and even the targeted individual sanctions envisaged by the State Department, would undermine an already parlous economy, entrench the Burmese in their sense of being alone against the world and render any passage to full democracy even harder.
The country is now in the sights of jihadist groups enraged by the treatment of the Rohingya. Already there is an ugly and significant movement of extremist Buddhist monks. Pope Francis, who plans to visit Myanmar this week, faces a delicate task in trying to advance conciliation. His first quandary will be whether to use the word “Rohingya,” which the Annan report avoided, in line with the request of Aung San Suu Kyi. (She believes that both “Rohingya” and “Bengali” are needlessly provocative.) He should. The Rohingya exist, have suffered, and through suffering have arrived at an identity that is unshakable.
Now in her 70s, Aung San Suu Kyi has to find her voice. Harmony is all very well, but meaningless without creative, energetic politicking. She knows she can’t throw the military under the bus if she wants to complete what she began through her brave defiance of the army in 1988. The world should understand this, too. It might better focus on Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief who presided over a ludicrous military report on the atrocities that exonerated the army. Tillerson rightly demanded an independent inquiry. Taking down Aung San Suu Kyi’s portrait is easy for people in comfortable places who have never faced challenges resembling hers.
In her book “Letters from Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi wrote of the suffering of Burmese children: “They know that there will be no security for their families as long as freedom of thought and freedom of political action are not guaranteed by the law of the land.”
The work of removing, once and for all, that anxiety from all the inhabitants of Myanmar and establishing the rule of law is far from done, as the devastating violence in Rakhine has amply illustrated. But Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman who faced down guns, remains the best hope of completing the task. Turning saints into ogres is easy. Completing an unfinished nation, clawing it from the military that has devastated it, is far more arduous — the longest of long games.