Myanmar Is Not a Simple Morality Tale
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” 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
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
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
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
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.