North Korea crisis eases. Singapore gets first female president. Elgin Marbles in Brexit play. By Hamish McDonald.

Suu Kyi’s precarious position on Rohingyas

Volunteers distribute food donations to Rohingya Muslim refugees in Naikhongchhari, Bangladesh, this week.
Volunteers distribute food donations to Rohingya Muslim refugees in Naikhongchhari, Bangladesh, this week.
Credit: Adib Chowdhury / AFP / Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi endured a quarter century of confinement and harassment before she became Myanmar’s de facto head of government last year. But her biggest challenge has now arrived with the crisis around the Muslim minority in north-western Rakhine state.

Her decision in 2011 to enter the political space created by the military’s partial retreat from its five decades of direct rule meant acceptance of some restrictions. She herself could not become president because the army-written constitution barred anyone who’d been married to a foreigner or had children with foreign citizenship, as she had. So her party has a dummy in the job, while she leads as “state counsellor”. The armed forces, or Tatmadaw, retain control of the defence, home affairs and border control ministries. With 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, they can block any constitutional amendments to change all this.

So Myanmar’s political system has two power centres, and Suu Kyi herself is in some respects a dummy leader, too. The other centre is the armed forces commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. He is the one calling the shots in Rakhine.

When a little-known Rohingya militant group attacked police and army posts on August 25, Suu Kyi was not consulted and barely informed about the Tatmadaw’s planned response. For actions in which about 400 were killed, mostly insurgents, for the 12 security men lost, this response has been massive. About 370,000 of the estimated million Rohingyas have been driven into Bangladesh, with hundreds killed and many rapes reported, and villages burnt down behind them.

The Tatmadaw has carried out this sweep, with help from bands of vigilantes drawn from the country’s majority of Bamar ethnicity and Buddhist religion and egged on by demagogic monks. If the attacking organisation, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), had the objective of provoking a disproportionate response and thereby gaining international sympathy it has been wildly successful – at the cost, of course, of ordinary Rohingyas.

This might suggest the Tatmadaw has learnt nothing from the counterinsurgency campaigns it has waged continually against a score of minorities since independence from Britain in 1948. Yet for all the foreign cultivation and Western military aid Min Aung Hlaing has recently enjoyed, he is playing to a domestic audience in which racist antipathy towards the Rohingya is widespread.

In a rare briefing for Myanmar journalists on September 1, he played up the ARSA as a sophisticated transnational terrorist outfit with links to Daesh and al-Qaeda, intent on recruiting at least one member of every household, and working towards creation of a separate Islamic state. Analysts say this has greatly improved the Tatmadaw’s image from that of the harsh regime that had kept Myanmar in poverty. Even Suu Kyi’s national security adviser, U Thaung Tun, is now talking about the ARSA’s alleged separatist agenda.

Suu Kyi is playing it cautiously – too cautiously – by talking of “misinformation” and not addressing the credible evidence of ethnic cleansing. She seems spooked by rumours and speculation that Min Aung Hlaing will slap her down in public, perhaps by making the objective of ethnic cleansing an explicit one, or even by invoking the emergency powers vested in him by the constitution to push her aside.

Finger off the button

The North Korea crisis eased somewhat this week, with the Trump administration agreeing to water down new sanctions to stave off Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council, and Kim Jong-un throwing a party, instead of another ballistic missile test, for his nuclear and missile scientists.

The sanctions will cut North Korea’s supplies of refined petrol, hitting the motorists among its nomenklatura and making the Korean People’s Army run down its fuel stockpile, but are easy on heavier fuel used for heating and power. Adding textiles to the list of banned imports from the North will cut the regime’s flow of hard currency.

Back in the Australian theatre, former defence and intelligence chiefs fired shots at politicians for using Donald Trump in campaigns seen as damaging the national interest. Recently retired defence secretary Dennis Richardson told Washington’s hawkish Centre for Strategic and International Studies that certain former Labor leaders − read Paul Keating and Bob Carr – had the objective of weakening ANZUS ties behind their criticism of Trump. In Canberra, former Office of National Assessments director Allan Gyngell told the Australian Institute of International Affairs there’s been an unfortunate tendency of some local hawks to bash China to show the Americans we were still on side, despite Trump.

In Washington, eminent US strategists Jeffrey Bader and Jonathan Pollack suggested it was time to pull in the wide slack given US presidents to launch nuclear attacks, an authority delegated by congress on the assumption such attacks would be retaliatory and at short notice. Bader and Pollack said the president should be required to get unanimous clearance for any preventive or pre-emptive nuclear strikes from a panel of senior officials, military chiefs and congressional leaders.

Singapore sling

Singapore, along with Ireland, is a model for our republicans about how to have an elected head of state combined with a head of government chosen by parliament.

Alas, the People’s Action Party (PAP) that has ruled the placed since 1959, can’t leave things alone and accept just anybody chosen by the people for the largely symbolic job of president.

This week Singapore got a new president, former parliamentary speaker Halimah Yacob, who is the first female in the post and the first Malay in five decades. But there was no election: she won by default after the electoral commission ruled all the other contestants were unqualified.

Following an unexpected scare some years back when an opposition figure got a strong protest vote against the PAP’s candidate, the government reset the rules to make sure all the main racial groups got a turn as president and to weed out people of unsuitable background. This time the field was limited to Malays, but the other two Malays who nominated, both well-known businessmen, were ruled out because their companies did not meet the threshold of $S500 million ($463 million) in equity.

It all looks a bit too convenient to some government critics. Yacob was a long-term PAP member of parliament until she resigned to run. One of the two rejected nominees, Mohamed Salleh Marican, had promised, if elected, to initiate an inquiry into the row between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings about the disposal of the home of their late father, PAP patriarch Lee Kuan Yew.

Marbles to stonker Brexit?

Britain’s Conservative government is pushing through its omnibus bill to keep regulations in operation when and if Brexit happens in March 2019, as scheduled, but the Greeks might hold up the exit from the European Union unless an old grievance is settled.

Each of the 27 members of the EU must agree to the terms of Britain’s exit. A push is now on among Greeks for their government to withhold its consent until the so-called Elgin Marbles are handed back by the British Museum in London. The statues and friezes, chiselled from the Parthenon from 1801-12 by agents for Lord Thomas Elgin, with the permission of the then Ottoman rulers, are perhaps the most notorious example of imperial loot.

“If it [Britain] can give back India, it can empty one room in London to return these items,” Alexis Mantheakis, a co-founder of the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee, told reporters recently. “We’re hoping the Greek government will do it. It’s a unique opportunity.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2017 as "Suu Kyi’s precarious position on Rohingyas".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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