Commentary | 25 September 2017

Why Kevin Rudd is wrong about Aung San Suu Kyi

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In less than a month more than 400,000 people have fled Myanmar's Rakhine State, across the border to Bangladesh. Hundreds have been shot and dozens of villages burned. Reports from refugees indicate the military has led the attacks, assisted by Buddhist villagers from the state's Rakhine majority. The primary targets are the state's Rohingya population, a Muslim ethnic minority group that Myanmar's government considers illegal immigrants.

In a New York Times op-ed and in an appearance on ABC's 7:30 last week, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd argued that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads Myanmar's government, has few options available if she wants to stop what UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

The situation in Rakhine State is complex and to be fair, Rudd is grappling with the best way to approach a crisis to which there are no easy answers. But his analysis is flawed, cites facts not in evidence and makes recommendations that are likely to lead to greater suffering. Suu Kyi is almost certainly in a stronger position than he suggests.

Rudd is right to point out that Suu Kyi's power is curtailed by the 2008 constitution, which gives the military control of the security forces, three ministries, 25 per cent of the seats in the legislature, and thus a veto on any changes to the constitution.

But many of Suu Kyi's critics have also noted these constraints, while arguing that her parliamentary majority and control over the rest of the government still gives her considerable leverage. She can threaten the military's budget, for example, or direct the state-owned press to stop fomenting ethnic hatred through its inflammatory coverage of the crisis. As foreign minister, she can give visas to the UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding commission, so that they can investigate these events – visas she has thus far refused to grant.

More problematic is Rudd's assertion that the military "looking for any pretext" to regain full control of government, and that actions by Suu Kyi to stop the violence would form such a pretext.

Though it is hard to know for sure what is in the mind of Myanmar's top brass, the consensus among most observers of Myanmar politics is the military is pleased with the current constitutional arrangements. With Suu Kyi as the face of the government, sanctions on Myanmar have been dropped and the country has been partly rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community.

The military has also benefited. Counterparts around the world have feted its commander, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, bringing him and his colleagues back into good standing among the world's armed forces, while at home the constitution allows it to retain substantial control over its core financial and security interests.

Rudd has pointed out that the constitution allows the military to retake control at any time – and indeed, the constitution provides for a military majority on a National Defence and Security Council with the power to declare a state of emergency. But such a move would immediately provoke the kind of international opprobrium that the military leadership sought to throw off when it began to liberalise the political system. It would much rather allow Suu Kyi to continue in her limited role, hiding behind her international reputation.

If that were not the case, we would have expected it to take back power when she used her parliamentary majority to name herself "state counsellor" – a role akin to prime minister – in April 2016. It is a position she has described as "above the president", in direct contravention of the 2008 constitution that placed the president at the head of the government, and was specifically designed to keep her from that office.

This end-run around the constitution followed months of public and private pressure by Suu Kyi on military leaders to amend the document to allow her to become president in her own right. It was a risky campaign, with the military's response always in doubt. Her courage then in support of democratic integrity, as well as her own ambitions, was in stark contrast with her refusal to confront the military on the treatment of the Rohingya.

Rudd's plea to the international community to not retreat from its support for Suu Kyi as it confronts the crisis in Rakhine State is premised upon this fatally flawed analysis. In fact, the military's leadership needs to hear from the international community that it will not be allowed to avoid accountability for allegations of crimes against humanity, regardless of Suu Kyi's willingness to share power with them.

Around half of Myanmar's Rohingya population have fled to Bangladesh since the military began "clearance operations" on August 25. If the international community does not respond more directly to these attacks, the military will be justified in assuming that further operations – designed to terrify the remaining Rohingya into following their neighbours – will likewise encounter little international resistance.