By AZEEM IBRAHIM
For more than three decades, the hopes for democracy in Myanmar have been inextricably tied to just one person: Aung San Suu Kyi. This was entirely appropriate for most of that time. She was, after all, the chosen democratic icon of the people of Myanmar.
But only half a year after she was finally allowed to lead the civilian government of Myanmar by the military in 2016, she became complicit in the latter’s “clearing operations” against the Rohingya people in the west of the country, which ultimately amounted to genocide. She not only defended their actions as necessary, but she wholly adopted the genocidal rhetoric of even denying the existence of the Rohingya as a separate ethnic group, indigenous to Myanmar.
And then the international community was faced with a choice: Call her out as equally responsible for the genocide for her tacit endorsement and later support for what happened to the Rohingya, or gloss over her role in the genocide and the events that followed and continue to support her as the vehicle through which the transition to democracy in Myanmar would ultimately be achieved.
Human rights organizations and international law bodies chose to tell the truth about her complicity. Most of the governments of the world, not so much. The traditional champions of human rights on the international stage, the US and the Europeans, both looked away. Washington looked away because the Trump administration simply had no interest in human rights issues. The Europeans, meanwhile, chose to look the other way in the hope that, if the transition to democracy is eventually completed under the stewardship of Suu Kyi, similar actions against other marginalized groups in Myanmar would — hopefully — be less likely. But that was a strategy of many maybes. More likely, it was just more convenient to hope for a better future than to do anything about what was happening to the Rohingya.
In either case, that approach has now been exposed as the folly it always was. The military of Myanmar used the civilian government under Suu Kyi as a shield from international rebuke while they were carrying out the genocide. And, when it looked like Suu Kyi and her movement were becoming too powerful, they discarded the entire pretense of a transition to democracy entirely and reassumed full control of the governance of the country. They got everything they wanted.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya will find it difficult getting justice out of the international community for decades, if ever. And the West is left weaponless in the aftermath of what happened, not least because it forfeited the moral authority to intervene in any way today after failing to intervene against the genocide as it was happening.
The military of Myanmar used the civilian government under Suu Kyi as a shield from international rebuke.
The most that can be said about the situation is that the trial for genocide at the International Court of Justice will continue. But good luck enforcing its verdicts, not least since they might expect China to come to the defense of Naypyidaw.
The moral of the story is: It will never do you any good to look away from and fail to act to stop or prevent genocide. The world is now left with another genocide on its conscience. But also a sense that more will be on the way. The world is a much less safe place than it was even just five years ago for so many of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The premise of a rules-based world order and of international law has been further eroded. And, with that, we are looking at more refugee crises; more international conflict; more domestic political upheaval as to how to respond to the international situation; and the destabilization of political institutions and law and order everywhere across the world — not least in Europe and the US. This is the price we pay for looking the other way. –AN