Myanmar's leader is rightly under fire for the terror inflicted on the Rohingya, but not nearly enough focus has been placed on the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who continues to enjoy nearly unchecked power
Aung San Suu Kyi is the bad guy in the Rohingya crisis, but what about the man directly responsible for the massacres?
Since late August, when attacks by Rohingya insurgents on police posts in Myanmar led to a massive reprisal by the army and other security forces in Rakhine state, the country has witnessed some of its worst violence in years.
The armed forces, and apparently local vigilantes, have driven more than 400,000 Rohingya out of Rakhine just since August. The Muslim and ethnic Rohingya, a minority, have fled into Bangladesh, where they are being housed in squalid camps. The camps were already packed with Rohingya who had fled an earlier spate of violence in the early part of this decade.
The plight of the Rohingya has captured significant international attention. It has been covered in major news outlets and discussed at the United Nations, but that discussion has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto head of government. Ms Suu Kyi has come in for withering criticism (including from myself). Criticism has also come from her fellow Nobel laureates, from rights groups and from foreign officials for downplaying the crisis in Rakhine state.
Ms Suu Kyi is hardly without blame, but not nearly enough focus has been placed on the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing. He is the person directly responsible for the massacres and the person who enjoys nearly unchecked power over the armed forces. He also is a man who, despite the situation in Rakhine state, has been courted for years by many developed nations.
That Ms Suu Kyi is the focus of international horror is not so surprising. She is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, while Gen Min Aung Hlaing is relatively obscure to most reporters. With Ms Suu Kyi’s background, the world should hold her to a higher standard for protecting human rights than a general who has served in one of the most brutal military forces on Earth. And she could indeed do much more, such as making a trip to Rakhine state and publicly calling for an end to atrocities, threatening the military’s budget or welcoming human rights investigators and monitors to visit Rakhine state.
Yet the international community needs to pay much more attention to – and take clearer action against – Gen Min Aung Hlaing and other top Myanmar military leaders. Even though Ms Suu Kyi and her party won the November 2015 election and formed a government in 2016, it does not oversee the three ministries responsible for security. The army does, and the military also controls, by law, a quarter of the seats in parliament. Some reports suggest that the commander-in-chief provides Ms Suu Kyi with minimal information about the military’s activities.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing, in fact, appears to be using a typical Myanmar army approach to Rakhine state, one “perfected” during years of army violence in ethnic minority areas.
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The armed forces long have relied upon a doctrine of brutality known in Myanmar as the “four cuts”. In ethnic minority areas where there is unrest, the army tries to cut off food, money, popular support and intelligence from insurgents. In practice, over decades, this strategy has resulted in massive and wanton killings of civilians and forced deportations, as appears to be happening now in Rakhine state.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing also appears to be endorsing forced deportations in Rakhine. In a recent statement during a visit to the state, the senior general encouraged non-Rohingya who had fled their homes to return to Rakhine state, but notably did not encourage Rohingya to return. This language implied that he was in favour of essentially ethnic cleansing Rakhine state.
And Rakhine is hardly the only place where, in a more democratic Myanmar, the armed forces actually have gone back on the offensive, paying no heed to elected officials. In addition to the violence in Rakhine state, the army has stepped up its wars against insurgent groups in the north and north-east – all essentially of its own accord – over the past two years.
Despite this continuing brutality, many developed nations were pushing to upgrade ties with the Myanmar army as recently as this summer. Until this month, the US senate planned to use its annual defence authorisation bill to bolster links to the Myanmar armed forces (the violence in Rakhine led senator John McCain to halt plans to fund better relations with the Myanmar army). The European Union, too, has been angling to improve military-to-military relations with the Myanmar armed forces.
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Many wealthy nations have, in fact, tried to boost personal relations with Gen Min Aung Hlaing and other top military men. Now, for example, foreign leaders are mostly avoiding blaming Gen Min Aung Hlaing directly for the Rakhine violence. Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria, Belgium and India have welcomed visits by Gen Min Aung Hlaing. He spoke to the European Union Military Committee in Belgium in November 2016 and reportedly met with defence companies in Italy on that same Europe visit, in addition to traveling to Germany and Austria in April 2017 on a trip to build ties.
As recently as early August, Gen Min Aung Hlaing traveled to Japan. There, he asked for an increase in Japanese assistance for the military.
Clearly, welcoming Gen Min Aung Hlaing with honour guards and speeches has not changed how the Myanmar army operates. Foreign leaders need to speak out against Gen Min Aung Hlaing as well, letting the senior general know that the world will punish him if the violence in Rakhine state continues.
All major democracies should heed the example of the United Kingdom, which has, for now, suspended military training programmes for Myanmar officers and put on hold any plans to boost ties with the military. Nations should stop selling arms to Myanmar as well. Those that still have arms embargoes in place, like the European Union, should keep them on.
In addition, foreign countries should consider applying new, targeted sanctions on top Myanmar generals as long as the brutality in Rakhine state continues. Such sanctions could include travel bans on senior generals and sanctions on military-owned companies linked to top generals. Military-owned companies are major players in the Myanmar economy, and enormously lucrative for the top brass; sanctions on certain army-linked firms would be a sign the international community is willing to downgrade its budding relationship with military.
The world could still call on Ms Suu Kyi to stop ignoring the catastrophe in Rakhine state. But it needs to give the Myanmar generals a serious warning. Doing so might lead the military to halt its atrocities, but more importantly, it would suggest that army leaders cannot continue a scorched earth policy and let Ms Suu Kyi take all the public criticism.