The West and Myanmar: Missing the wood for the trees


Rohingya Muslims in the village of Shwe Zarr looking at Myanmar police, who are providing security due to recent nearby unrest, near Maungdaw township in Rakhine State. Photo: AFP

By relentlessly pressurising the Aung San Suu Kyi government over alleged human rights violations in Rakhine, the West is clearly not missing the wood for the trees. 

They are putting her in the most awkward of situations and thus threatening the very roots of Burmese democracy, whose cause they loudly proclaim to defend.

The all-powerful Tatmadaw (army) is upset if she cannot deflect the global criticism and may be provoked to launch what BBC's former Asia Editor Larry Jagan describes as an 'administrative coup'. Meaning they use the constitutional powers they enjoy to take charge of the administration and render Aung San Suu Kyi practically powerless.

For those who want the icon of Burmese democracy to be stripped of her Nobel Prize because of her apparent failure to control the army and prevent atrocities in Rakhine, let me bring up a few cases of Western hypocrisy on this issue.

  *   Why did the West not oppose the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1973 or ask for its return, even after Kissinger’s role as Secretary of State in planning ' Operation Condor’ and the U.S. bombing campaigns in Cambodia made a mockery of the prize. Let me recall the immortal lines of the great Tom Lehrer about Kissinger getting the Nobel Peace Prize -- "This has made political satire obsolete." 

However, Kissinger was also responsible for planning the CIA-planned army coup in Bangladesh in 1975 that killed the founder of the nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and almost his entire family. He had got a "file on the issue moved " before President Nixon was brought down by Watergate. Lawrence Lifschultz has detailed the CIA role in this coup in his classic "Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution". For Kissinger, the ultimate cold warrior who would describe Mujib as an 'Indo-Soviet lackey' and Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi as a 'bitch', this coup was to make up for the failure in Vietnam.

Kissinger is also directly responsible for planning the bloody CIA driven coup in Chile that killed Salvador Allende and many such actions in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  In short, he had much blood on his hands and was responsible for more wars than the one peace accord he got in place after the failure of US military misadventure in Indo-China. 

 “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” wrote TIME when Palestinian leader  Yasser Arafat  was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize  in 1994, sharing the award with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for the trio’s work on the Oslo Peace Accords, a document meant to create “opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East.” The document is seen now as only one of many stop-gap measures that failed to resolve the longest-running conflict in the world.

Criticism has been heaped on the committee for this award not only because of the failure of the Oslo accords but because of Arafat himself. Although Arafat publicly spoke out against terrorism, he has been called “The worst man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize” by his critics. As Jay Nordlinger — author of “Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World” — wrote in an opinion piece for The Times of Israel, Arafat was an “unrepentant terrorist with a long legacy of promoting violence” for terrorist campaigns against Israel. His life has been majorly scrutinised, including his role in overseeing military groups responsible for bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and his aversion to compromise, a quality that hurt the future of the Oslo accords all the more. The long list of Arafat’s numerous crimes has spurned many to call the Palestinian leader “the father of modern terrorism.”

* In a move called “a stunning surprise” by the New York Times, Barack Obama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize only 12 days after he took office as US president in 2009. When he actually won the prize only months into his first term in office, many accused the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of being politically motivated since the president was chosen to receive the award for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” rather than any concrete achievements. “Very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, pointing to his calls to reduce the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and work to reignite the stalling Middle East Peace process. But critics of choice were quick to highlight that Obama’s short presidency had already seen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan as well as the beginning of a drone campaign that caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

After what journalist Kirsten Powers called Obama’s “determination to attack” Syria and his handling of the “pointless and failing” war in Afghanistan, many people agree with what Obama said in his acceptance speech: that he does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

When compared to these, Aung San Suu Kyi shines as a bright light of hope as she struggles to guide the ship of Burmese democracy through the choppy waters at home and abroad.

The West must understand the real dynamics of Burmese polity before they jump to conclusions. The Rohingya crisis offers a stark insight into where real power still lies in the country just months after the generals ceded all lawmaking powers – except in matters of security – to the civilian government and Suu Kyi became de facto leader.

With three serving generals handling the home, defence and border affairs ministries, and a quarter of MPs being men in uniform, the army is “sufficiently structurally empowered to have its way, especially on security issues like Rakhine”, Myanmar watcher Mrinal Chakma told the South China Morning Post recently. 

Leaving aside her long struggle for Burmese democracy and the sufferings she has undergone, which has a huge impact on her current health, let us look at her role in the Rakhine issue and examine whether the superficial Western response is justified.

*  When tempers ran high after the first ARSA serial attacks in October 2016, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi bravely staved off efforts to militarise the conflict and set up the Rakhine Commission under former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. Can you expect India to set up such a commission on Kashmir, Bangladesh set up something like this on the Chittagong Hill Tracts , Indonesia on Aceh or Thailand on Pattani, let alone expect China to set up such a commission on Sinkiang or Tibet or the UK on Northern Ireland. Would the US like a commission to go into the allegations by locals about huge loss of lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan  in drone attacks ! No modern nation-state want such sensitive domestic issues internationalised, and the US does not like any scrutiny for its overkill violence in the many global conflict zones. For those American senators jumping up and down over Rakhine, we may request them to reflect on the water boarding and other unique torture methods at Guantanamo. 

* So Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did what no modern post-colonial leader has done to maintain credibility and transparency -- she not merely got the Rakhine Commission up but also decided to implement its recommendations (loaded in favour of Rohingyas) by setting up an inter-ministerial committee. And that night, under orders from their handlers in Pakistan's ISI, the ARSA attacked 30 police stations and one military base. Who thwarted Suu Kyi's peace efforts in Rakhine! The answer is simple -- ARSA and Pakistan, who wants a new theatre of jihad in Rakhine. A new theatre with a new cause will bring the fat cats of the Islamist world running with a bagful of dinars -- for ISI and the Pakistani generals, jihad is commerce. Recall the great Seymour Hersh's great expose on Bin Laden's death -- the Pakistani military traded him for millions of dollars, says Hersh. Or else how could US Navy Seals strike Bin Laden within a few kms of the Pakistan military academy at Abbottabad! If Pakistani army really failed to monitor the US operation, the army should stand disbanded. The Indian army cashiered the brigadier commanding the camp at Uri in Kashmir after a terrorist attack there.

* Though the army stepped in strongly to take charge in Rakhine with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi temporarily on the backfoot, she did not succumb to the Tatmadaw's push for declaring a regional emergency in the troubled province. Unlike most in the West who felt Suu Kyi, in September, cancelled a planned trip to the UN at the last minute to avoid uncomfortable questions, she did that because she feared the military-appointed vice-president Myint Swe might sign the state of emergency for Rakhine as [with President Htin Kyaw incapacitated due to illness] he would be in charge of the government in her absence. “The mistrust of Suu Kyi is growing within the military, not just between her and [army chief Min Aung] Hlaing but the army as a whole” a senior retired military officer is quoted by Larry Jagan as saying in his column for www.southasianmonitor.com 

“The West is actually hitting at the roots of Myanmar democracy with criticism of Suu Kyi. She is the one leader capable of holding it together amid serious challenges. Thankfully for her, neighbours China, India and ASEAN are more sensitive to the political dynamics and have strongly supported her,” India's Myanmar watcher Amrita Dey told South China Morning Post recently.

India and China have, despite their competition for regional influence, successfully got the Myanmar government (especially the army) to accept the Rohingya refugees back. An Indian emissary told senior Myanmar officials recently not to issue provocative statements against Bangladesh because that discredits Sheikh Hasina. " If she is not in power, you will find a Jamaat-influenced BNP government turning Rakhine into Asia's new jihad zone," the emissary warned.  Myanmar has decided to welcome Bangladesh foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmud Ali, and his visit has been finalised for 16-18th Nov. That may lead to an agreement for repatriation of the Rohingya refugees.

On the other hand, Indian diplomats have also influenced the Hasina government and advised them to avoid needless posturing and sabre rattling on the Rohingya issue. The Indians have told Hasina's people to realise that if the Rohingya issue persists and is played up, it will be ultimate fuel Islamist sentiments and benefit BNP-Jamaat combine and not Hasina's Awami League. The Awami League wins when Bengali nationalist issues like war crime trials of pro-Pakistani war criminals take centre stage. But when pan-Islamist fervour takes over like in 2001 after 9/11, Awami League loses. A top Hasina adviser recently told me: " We have realised Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is negotiating a very difficult situation and we can at least talk to Myanmar if she is in power." Hasina's political advisor H T Imam actually in an interview to Mizzima described ARSA as a common enemy of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh had also offered joint military operations against ARSA, but Myanmar military has not responded. 

India's former intelligence chief Rajinder Khanna recently told a conference on 'India-Myanmar relations' organised by Calcutta think-tank ISCS that Myanmar security agencies may have missed out Pakistan's 'phased efforts' to boost the Rakhine jihad that India has monitored since the 2004 Chittagong arms haul. " We do not want another Kashmir or Afghanistan in the East," he said, adding it is in the interest of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh to develop a regional intelligence grid for real-time sharing of intelligence. 

He argued that while much of that weapons consignment nabbed in Chittagong by Bangladesh police was meant for rebel groups in Northeast India, a substantial portion was to go to Rohingya factions. A special court in Bangladesh has awarded death sentence for two then-ministers of Bangladesh, Motiur Rahman Nizami (of Jamaat e Islami) and Lutfur Zaman Babar  of BNP)  and two intelligence officials Rezakul Haiuder Chowdhury and Abdur Rahim, who were ISI's agents in Bangladesh intelligence.  The Chittagong court judgement running into 72 pages details the meetings that Haider Choudhury and Abdur Rahim had with their ISI handlers.

Khanna referred in his conference paper details of Pakistan's Lashkar e Tayyaba 's operations in tandem with HUJI-Arakan, the role played by the Pakistani Rohingya LET weapons trainer Ustad Wazir and much else. " The ARSA 's first targeting of Rohingya moderates, then the killing of Hindus and Myos and the attack on security forces all follow the patterns of the Kashmir intifada," said Khanna.

The West must understand the seriousness of efforts to create a jihadi zone in Rakhine and not make the mistake of just beating the drums of human rights and democracy. Nobody would suggest condoning serious human rights violations, but please don’t see the Rakhine crisis just as a humanitarian crisis. It is a security crisis for the Burmese state and an existential one for its democracy.  The West created the fertile ground for the rise of ISIS by bringing down or attempting to bring down dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Al Assad, leading to a ridiculous situation in which the US was found backing pro-Al Qaida affiliates against Assad even as their Seals were trying to kill Bin Laden. Was it just Himalayan blunders of policy or some real diabolical stuff of hunting with the hound and swimming with the crocodile! Whatever it was, please don't repeat that in Myanmar and Rakhine. Don't bring disaster on this most ravaged country because you entertain funny ideas and don't understand the ground reality in Myanmar and rest of Asia. 

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson's visit will be immediately followed by Bangladesh foreign minister Mahmud Ali's. Myanmar can tell Tillerson to focus on North Korea and leave the Rakhine crisis to be handled by itself and Bangladesh with some help from India and China. Leave us alone, Uncle Sam, for heaven's sake. 

(U Ba Tin is the pseudonym of a regional writer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Mizzima Media)

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