OPINION: In Myanmar’s Game of Thrones, the Rohingya lose

Karim Raslan - Ceritalah ASEAN

Posted at Dec 17 2019 02:45 AM

A rally held at Mahabandulah Park in Yangon, Myanmar, in support of Aung San Suu Kyi. Team Ceritalah

Is she Cersei Lannister – cold, cynical and deadly? Or Sansa Stark – noble, long-suffering and genuine?

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi – the general’s daughter, presiding over a desperately fragile state has gone from being the Tatmadaw’s (military’s) nemesis to their apologist or, worse yet, enabler.

As the proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gear up and her nation again comes under global scrutiny, many have asked how the much-revered Lady could have become so reviled?

The State Councillor has allowed the darkest forces in her nation, to wreak violence against the long-oppressed Muslim Rohingya minority – the existence of which she refuses even to acknowledge.

Well-over 730,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled to Bangladesh since the most recent spate of violence against them broke out in the Rakhine state in August 2017. And that’s why Suu Kyi is at the Hague, defending her government against charges of genocide.

This is barely scraping the surface.

An investigation into the brutal murder of 10 Rohingya men and their subsequent mass burial led to the detention of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo from December 2017 to May 2019 (under Suu Kyi’s watch) - though, the pair eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting.

Still, the parallels between Cersei, Lioness of the Rock and Suu Kyi are hard to deny. Both come across as stoic, impenetrable and have succeeded in a field, which is dominated by men. Once in power–both would do anything to keep hold of it.

Unlike Cersei however, Suu Kyi remains a popular figure amongst her own people, if the rallies held in support of her in the lead-up to the ICJ proceedings are any indication.

As a tea shop owner from the Botahtung township told Team Ceritalah: “I stand with Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a good leader and works hard for the country. She is taking responsibility as a leader by facing the ICJ court.”

Indeed, it’s unlikely that the ICJ - even if it rules against Myanmar - would be able to stop the violence against the Rohingya.

A map highlighting the position of the Rakhine State within Myanmar. Team Ceritalah

For one thing, there’s nothing to enforce its rulings. Second, the roots of the Buddhist-Muslim divide in Myanmar run deep.

So how did things get this way?

Thant-Myint U, author and historian, attempts to explain in his latest book, “The Hidden History of Burma.”

For Thant, Myanmar’s tangled ethnic history predates the colonial era. Whilst tensions between Muslims and Buddhists had long existed, the British imposed a racial hierarchy that reduced the Burmese to passive onlookers as millions of migrants from Indian and China flooded into the then booming economy - fuelled by the exports of teak, oil and rubies.

Successive governments since independence failed to heal the nation’s divide.

Thant, unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, does not seem to have any solutions for the poisonous identity politics that is tearing his homeland apart.

Rather, the only policy prescriptions he can offer are the need to address the anomalies of capitalism (which has led to stark inequality) and the looming prospect of climate change, which presents an existential challenge to Myanmar.

To be fair, none of this is intrinsically wrong and Thant is astute to highlight the environmental angle—which often gets lost in Southeast Asian policymaking.

But, in the face of the devastating stories of Rohingyas being murdered, raped, driven from their homes and starved, only one question really matters.

Can they ever return to the Rakhine State?

Team Ceritalah revisited Sadek Ali Hasan, a Rohingya refugee and schoolteacher who has lived in Malaysia for the past 14 years.

He yearns to return home: “I owned 18 hectares of arable land. If my rights, properties and wealth are restored then of course I will return! If there is peace and stability, then why do I need to stay here [in Malaysia]?”

Sadek Ali Hasan, a Rohingya refugee and schoolteacher who has been living in Malaysia for the past 14 years. Team Ceritalah

And this is where I feel Suu Kyi’s failure has been so palpable.

Nobody denies the intractable difficulties that she or her country faces. But she ought to have used the moral force she enjoyed to affect a breakthrough in Myanmar’s ethnic divide - whatever it may have cost her politically or personally.

As it is—she has proven that she is no different than other opportunistic politicians. The Lady has feet of clay.

Yes, the economy and environment are important. But they’re not the only issues.

All nations have their demons. The challenge for leaders is to excise such evil: especially if their own, hard-core supporters are the ones who can be so easily swayed by such propaganda.

True Leadership is about controlling the primordial, atavistic aspects of our national psyches.

Suu Kyi has failed at this.

The disasters that followed 1930s Germany and the 1990s former Yugoslavia suggest the kind of price Myanmar may have to pay as a result.

Suu Kyi has ridden the global wave of the ethno-nationalism.

But at what cost to Myanmar and the region?

So in Myanmar’s Game of Thrones, is Suu Kyi Cersei or Sansa?

Maybe - and one desperately hopes that this is not the case - she’s just a Daenerys Targaryen, the Khaleesi that everyone loved- but who ended up, literally, setting her land ablaze.

Only time can tell--but that's running out rapidly for the Rohingya and indeed, Myanmar.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.