But analysts say Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has little if any control over the country’s military forces that are enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya.
Since August 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked 30 police posts, killing 12 police officers, according to Myanmar state media, the military and its surrogates have cut a swathe through Rakhine State, targeting Rohingya Muslims in “clearance operations.”
The military junta, which ruled the country with an iron fist from 1962 until 2011 — arresting democracy advocates including Suu Kyi, imposing martial law and killing protestors — still controls the security forces, the police and key cabinet positions in the government. And there’s nothing Suu Kyi can do about it.
“Under the Constitution the commander-in-chief (of Myanmar’s Armed Forces) is his own boss, he doesn’t report to Aung San Suu Kyi. He can’t be fired,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“If the military has to choose between control and international respect, they will choose control. It’s a question of how much they’re willing to give up. We haven’t seen much evidence that they’re willing to give up anything beyond what they gave up in the 2008 constitution,” he told CNN.
Still wielding control
In the Constitution, the role of the commander-in-chief — who is the ultimate military authority. — often overrides that of the President. Along with nominating military candidates for seats in both houses of parliament, the Constitution also allows the commander-in-chief, in the event of a state of emergency “the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power.” The constitution also bans “retrospective” penal law — an addition possibly meant to prevent the military from being prosecuted for past crimes, including the house arrest of Suu Kyi and the junta’s disavowal of the 1990 elections that would have effectively routed the generals from power.
“After half a century or more of authoritarian rule, now we are in the process of nurturing our nation,” she said. “We are a young and fragile country facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all. We cannot just concentrate on the few.”
The internationally-feted democracy advocate has had to endure the howls of outrage from around the world at the military’s treatment of the Rohingya. For her military counterpart, Commander-in-Chief Sen. General Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, it’s been business as usual.
While Suu Kyi chose to cancel a trip to the US to speak at the United Nations General Assembly to deal with the problems at home, Min Aung Hlaing has been hosting foreign diplomats, speaking to military audiences and receiving donations to a fund for people displaced by the “chaos” instigated by Rohingya insurgents.
His formal engagements are posted almost daily to his verified Facebook page, to more than 1.28 million followers.
A prolific Facebook account
Both Suu Kyi and the military have said the violence in Rakhine State, which prompted the mass exodus of nearly half a million people, was instigated by Rohingya militants.
As well as refusing to publicly refer to the name Rohingya, Suu Kyi insists the violence and the displacement has affected many other people too.
When the government of Myanmar passed a citizenship law in 1982, it said Rohingya could apply if they spoke an officially recognized language and could prove that their families had lived in the country before independence. But most Rohingya were never granted the paperwork to prove their roots and are effectively stateless. They did not make the list of the 135 recognized ethnicities in Myanmar. In his public statements Min Aung Hlaing doesn’t refer to Rohingya by that name, using instead the term “Bengali.”
Arms sales and weapons embargos
The military has avoided condemnation from Western nations precisely because it is still wending its way out of isolation. For decades, countries like the US had limited diplomacy with Myanmar, assigning defense attaches instead of ambassadors to the US embassy and attempting to maintain contact while trying not to be tainted by the military’s disregard for human rights.
Under the Obama administration the military relationship between the two countries focused largely on training the military in rule of law, human rights and disaster relief, with the occasional participation in multilateral exercises — nothing the military would be too concerned to lose, said Aaron Connelly at the Lowy Institute.
“We never got to the point where those relationships existed and so because we never got there, we don’t have the leverage over the military to be able to say, by cutting off our relationship with you we can make you an international pariah. We never developed the carrots and now all we’re really left with are sticks,” he said.
There are still US and EU arms embargoes against Myanmar, but it continues to receive weapons and training from allies including China, India, Russia and even Israel.
“It’s very murky, it’s one of the least transparent countries in Asia when it comes to these things,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher on arms and military spending at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Looking at all the different sources you get a picture of China being by far the most important supplier. The weapons we see showing up, the bigger ones, are Chinese, all land, air and seacraft.”
Russia, he says, supplies helicopters and light aircraft, India supplies weapons to Myanmar’s navy and despite the EU ban, some European equipment makes it through Wezeman said, although not with the blessing of those countries.
“It’s indirect. It’s mainly engines, sometimes it’s for Chinese ships that end up in Myanmar. They’re produced under license in China but they’re supposed to inform the European countries,” he said, adding that the engines may not be considered to be weapons.