Myanmar's idol falls from grace
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Myanmar's idol falls from grace

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Upwards of 410,000 Muslim Rohingyas have now fled into neighbouring Bangladesh since August 25. Quite simply it is the largest and fastest exodus of refugees from Myanmar since the Second World War.

The international outcry has roundly focused on the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, for her seeming denial of the forces that have triggered the crisis; a security crackdown and targeted mob burnings of villages in northern Rakhine state that together surely amount to a version of ethnic cleansing.

As a political prisoner for almost 15 years, Suu Kyi came to global prominence for her moral courage and commitment to universal human rights. In short order since coming to power last year, she has been reborn as an anti-hero of our morally fevered times.

Suu Kyi's fall from grace offers a fable on modern idolatry. But the fallout fails to amount to an effective international response to a pressing global humanitarian crisis. To the contrary – whether lionised or vilified – international fixation on her obscures a broader understanding and approach to the country's troubled political trajectory.

Effective international outreach to pull Myanmar back from the brink will need to take account of several key factors. If Suu Kyi had so far to fall it is because the international community raised her so high. There is a lesson here for Western politicians, journalists and civil society activists who held her in too high regard for too long: we cannot afford to rely on simple narratives. To do so was to be wholly unprepared for the messy reality.

Second, far-right nationalism has surged with uglier consequences but for the same reasons as they have in mature democracies. Since 2012, politics has freed up and Facebook has become the principle echo chamber of disinformation for 89 per cent of the population now linked up online. Attacks by Rohingya insurgents on government outposts have exacerbated anti-Muslim sentiment across the country.

Third, the views of the situation in the West (and the Muslim world) and views among most of the Buddhist population of Myanmar are not just divergent, but they are diametrically opposed. A majority of citizens believe they are the victims of foreign instigated terrorist attacks and that the Rohingya are illegal Bengali migrants.

Public anger over perceived Western media bias transcends historic divisions over democracy and dictatorship. In a country whose people were once largely pro-Western, our message has clearly backfired. We will need more than moral outrage – however well intended – to effect change on the ground.

Fourth, squaring these narratives has become almost impossible. Suu Kyi failed earlier this week in a televised address to strike a balance in the expectations of the domestic constituency and the West. She is a compromised political actor faced with an unenviable choice: become an international punching bag or compromise her relationship with the military – which she has relied on to enable a return to democracy – and possibly even her party's electability in 2020.

Fifth, by making Suu Kyi the focus of our condemnation we lose sight of the main actors feeding the crisis, the military chief among them. The military has pursued a scorched earth "four cuts" campaign to deny Rohingya insurgents food, funds, intelligence and recruits at all costs. Politically, the generals seem relieved to take a step back from the international limelight, to fatigue their opponents in government and show voters there is no magic wand for governing.

Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing has rallied the Buddhist majority behind an institution that was only recently still reviled and maligned. We must tread carefully if we want to unpick the narratives and counter-narratives. In the Trumpian post-truth age, state sovereignty and security hold greater salience than human rights and justice. And internationally, Myanmar is less isolated than we might think: India, China and Russia all share similar world views and have indicated they would shield Myanmar from punitive measures at the United Nations.

The West must then ask itself whether Myanmar without Suu Kyi's involvement would be any better than it is now. The State Counsellor has stubbornly unsympathetic views towards the Rohingya. But it's worth recognising that she remains on the moderate and moderating spectrum of public opinion on the crisis in Myanmar. The military would be no more sympathetic to providing urgent humanitarian aid according to need to those who remain in Northern Rakhine.

If we want Myanmar politicians to address the underlying drivers of the crisis, we will need to frame our arguments pragmatically: Allow nationalist fervour to thrive and it will define Myanmar politics for years to come. Ageing pro-democracy leaders must surely expect to reap the whirlwind. Accept that social anxieties are made worse by a general weakness of competing ideas and an unwillingness by anyone other than the military to present an alternative path forward. And consider the self-fulfilling prophecy of allowing the situation of the Rohingya to fester. Exorcising people – by whatever name – is a sure-fire way to exacerbate a militancy. Such policies are ultimately as ineffective as they are inhumane.

Areas of expertise: Strategy and geopolitics; global governance; Australian foreign policy; Southeast Asia; Data analysis