She’s been the focus of the world’s criticism, scrutiny and censure as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, escaping what the United Nations human rights chief has labeled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
But analysts say Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has little if any control over the country’s military forces that are enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya.
Since August 25, when Rohingya insurgents attacked 30 police posts, killing 12 police officers, according to Myanmar state media, the military and its surrogates have cut a swathe through Rakhine State, targeting Rohingya Muslims in “clearance operations.”
Rohingya who’ve fled have spoken of their homes being torched, of neighbors turning on neighbors, of relatives taken away never to be seen again.
The military junta, which ruled the country with an iron fist from 1962 until 2011 — arresting democracy advocates including Suu Kyi, imposing martial law and killing protestors — still controls the security forces, the police and key cabinet positions in the government. And there’s nothing Suu Kyi can do about it.
“Under the Constitution the commander-in-chief (of Myanmar’s Armed Forces) is his own boss, he doesn’t report to Aung San Suu Kyi. He can’t be fired,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“If the military has to choose between control and international respect, they will choose control. It’s a question of how much they’re willing to give up. We haven’t seen much evidence that they’re willing to give up anything beyond what they gave up in the 2008 constitution,” he told CNN.
Still wielding control
In 2008 a new Constitution allocated a quarter of the seats in parliament to the military. It was the military’s way of easing Myanmar’s return from exile as a pariah state: constitutional reform, civilian government, and the restoring of Suu Kyi to public life. But also enshrined in the Constitution is the ability for the military to flex its muscle when it senses that those newfound freedoms might encroach on its hold over defense in Myanmar.
Among the edicts in the document is the condition that no one with dual-citizen relations (including parents or children) can ever be president. Because both of Suu Kyi’s adult sons are British citizens, as was her late husband, she was unable to assume the presidency. However, she is able to still largely play that role in a position that was created especially for her, State Counselor. During the 2015 elections she told a news conference that should her party win and form the government “I will be above the president. It’s a very simple message.”
In the Constitution, the role of the commander-in-chief — who is the ultimate military authority. — often overrides that of the President. Along with nominating military candidates for seats in both houses of parliament, the Constitution also allows the commander-in-chief, in the event of a state of emergency “the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power.” The constitution also bans “retrospective” penal law — an addition possibly meant to prevent the military from being prosecuted for past crimes, including the house arrest of Suu Kyi and the junta’s disavowal of the 1990 elections that would have effectively routed the generals from power.
When she addressed diplomats in Myanmar on September 19, Suu Kyi stressed that her government was still young — in power for a mere 18 months — and efforts to bring democracy to the country were still fledgling.
“After half a century or more of authoritarian rule, now we are in the process of nurturing our nation,” she said. “We are a young and fragile country facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all. We cannot just concentrate on the few.”
The internationally-feted democracy advocate has had to endure the howls of outrage from around the world at the military’s treatment of the Rohingya. For her military counterpart, Commander-in-Chief Sen. General Min Aung Hlaing, on the other hand, it’s been business as usual.
While Suu Kyi chose to cancel a trip to the US to speak at the United Nations General Assembly to deal with the problems at home, Min Aung Hlaing has been hosting foreign diplomats, speaking to military audiences and receiving donations to a fund for people displaced by the “chaos” instigated by Rohingya insurgents.
His formal engagements are posted almost daily to his verified Facebook page, to more than 1.28 million followers.
A prolific Facebook account
On September 15, 2017 a post written in English quoted Min Aung Hlaing saying there had been 93 clashes with “extremist Bengalis” since August 25. The militants, the post claimed, intend to build a stronghold in a district in Rakhine State. “They have demanded recognition as Rohingya, which has never been an ethnic group in Myanmar. Bengali issue is a national cause and we need to be united in establishing the truth.”
Earlier, on September 1, 2017, another post in English harkens back to the loss of “Rakhine ethnics” of Rakhine State in 1942, “in which Bengalis attacked, murdered and coerced them into leaving their homes. We will never let such a terrible occurrence happen again.”
Both Suu Kyi and the military have said the violence in Rakhine State, which prompted the mass exodus of nearly half a million people, was instigated by Rohingya militants.
As well as refusing to publicly refer to the name Rohingya, Suu Kyi insists the violence and the displacement has affected many other people too.
There is long-held prejudice against the Rohingya among the people of Myanmar. Some Rohingya were originally brought in as laborers under British rule from 1824 to 1948 in what the British considered an internal migration because the area was part of British-administered India. Many Rohingya, however, say they are descendants of Muslim traders who can be traced back to the ninth century. In reality, there is likely to be a mix of ethnicities among them.
When the government of Myanmar passed a citizenship law in 1982, it said Rohingya could apply if they spoke an officially recognized language and could prove that their families had lived in the country before independence. But most Rohingya were never granted the paperwork to prove their roots and are effectively stateless. They did not make the list of the 135 recognized ethnicities in Myanmar. In his public statements Min Aung Hlaing doesn’t refer to Rohingya by that name, using instead the term “Bengali.”
Arms sales and weapons embargos
The military has avoided condemnation from Western nations precisely because it is still wending its way out of isolation. For decades, countries like the US had limited diplomacy with Myanmar, assigning defense attaches instead of ambassadors to the US embassy and attempting to maintain contact while trying not to be tainted by the military’s disregard for human rights.
Under the Obama administration the military relationship between the two countries focused largely on training the military in rule of law, human rights and disaster relief, with the occasional participation in multilateral exercises — nothing the military would be too concerned to lose, said Aaron Connelly at the Lowy Institute.
“We never got to the point where those relationships existed and so because we never got there, we don’t have the leverage over the military to be able to say, by cutting off our relationship with you we can make you an international pariah. We never developed the carrots and now all we’re really left with are sticks,” he said.
There are still US and EU arms embargoes against Myanmar, but it continues to receive weapons and training from allies including China, India, Russia and even Israel.
“It’s very murky, it’s one of the least transparent countries in Asia when it comes to these things,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher on arms and military spending at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Looking at all the different sources you get a picture of China being by far the most important supplier. The weapons we see showing up, the bigger ones, are Chinese, all land, air and seacraft.”
Russia, he says, supplies helicopters and light aircraft, India supplies weapons to Myanmar’s navy and despite the EU ban, some European equipment makes it through Wezeman said, although not with the blessing of those countries.
“It’s indirect. It’s mainly engines, sometimes it’s for Chinese ships that end up in Myanmar. They’re produced under license in China but they’re supposed to inform the European countries,” he said, adding that the engines may not be considered to be weapons.
“When India supplied equipment to Myanmar including radar, some of those radars were based on a Dutch design. The Dutch made it very clear that if there was Dutch technology and Dutch components that India was breaking any agreements it had because those things were considered weapons.” The Indians, he said, responded that they were all Indian-made.
The business of war
Defense spending makes up 14% of Myanmar’s budget, which even includes arts funding for propaganda projects. But even during its economic and political isolation Myanmar was able to buy weapons and hardware because of the controlling interest the ruling junta had in several government monopolies.
Some of their business properties include Myanmar Economic Corporation, which maintains holdings in manufacturing, telecommunication, transport and even gin. Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited brings the ruling generals lucrative returns on cigarette and petroleum imports.
The generals “insert themselves in various parts of the economy and use this to enrich their shareholders,” said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a contributor to a 2015 Transparency International report on Myanmar, quoted in the Financial Times. “Despite the political changes in Myanmar, the military remains solidly in control, and its books are still closed to public scrutiny.”
World leaders are now being urged to implement sanctions against the military itself, to try to push the ruling officers to end their campaign against the Rohingya. Sen. John McCain said he plans to remove language from a defense authorization bill that would have expanded training exercises between the US military and Myanmar’s.
“While I had hoped the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) could contribute to positive reform in Burma,” McCain said in his statement, “I can no longer support expanding military-to-military cooperation given the worsening humanitarian crisis and human rights crackdown against the Rohingya people, and will seek to remove this language when the Senate begins debating the NDAA.”
Australia’s government, which pledged more than $53 million ($66 million Australian) in aid for Myanmar in 2017-2018, has said its agreement with Myanmar was aimed at helping the country’s transition to a democracy. The UK said it would suspend its training program for the military because of the violence in Rakhine State “until there is an acceptable resolution to the current situation,” a spokesman for the British government said on Tuesday. The UK government called on Myanmar’s military to “take immediate steps to stop the violence in Rakhine and ensure the protection of all civilians, to allow full access for humanitarian aid.” Five military trainee officers attending courses in the UK were being sent back to Myanmar, the country’s military information office posted on its official Facebook page. They were being “forced to return” after the UK suspended the program, the post said. The military would be bringing them home as quickly as possible, adding that “no trainees,” including those who sent under previous agreements with the UK, “will be sent to Britain anymore.”
No weapons embargo for countries like Israel
Because Myanmar is subject to a weapons embargo from the European Union and the United States, it has turned to other suppliers including India and Israel for its needs, amid a push to become less reliant on China, wrote Myanmar expert Andrew Selth.
In Israel, human rights activists have petitioned the Israeli High Court to halt sales of military weapons and equipment to Myanmar. Eitay Mack, the lawyer presenting the petition said that Israel has been opaque over the nature of its longstanding relationship with Myanmar, but the internet has provided his legal team with significant information that is public and hard for Israel to ignore.
“Israel could be considered as compliant in crimes against humanity, it’s enough that Israel knows that this is happening and the weapons and training it sends to Myanmar could be used for its crimes,” Mack told CNN.
Sen. General Min Aung Hlaing visited Israel in 2015, toured military and naval bases, and published everything on his Facebook page, Mack said. “It was secret in Israel but then I found it on Facebook. It’s a public thing and hard for them to argue.”
During the 2015 visit the Myanmar generals “disclosed that they had purchased Super Dvora patrol boats from Israel, and there was talk of additional purchases,” an article in Israel’s Ha’aretz noted.
Min Aung Hlaing’s proclivity for posting on Facebook revealed visits to Myanmar by Michel Ben Baruch, the head of Sibat, Israel’s defense export unit. Israeli company TAR Ideal Concepts, whose leadership includes a former head of the Israeli police, had published advertisements, Mack said, that included images of forces undergoing training. The post is titled “special weapons systems in Asia,” but the flag of Myanmar is visible in one of the images.
Asked for comment about the lawsuit and the state of sales to Myanmar, the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry told CNN: “Israel denies categorically the false information in the media regarding a so called involvement in the tragedy in the Rakhine province in Myanmar.” The Israeli defense ministry said it “does not comment on matters relating to defense exports.”
What the military wants
Longtime Myanmar observer Andrew Selth says the military does not want to run Myanmar, but it does intend to protect its people and its position in the country. Its nationalism will “be cited to justify military operations against ethnic armed groups and, if considered necessary, the Rohingya,” he writes.
What should be of great concern for Myanmar, says Selth, is the possibility that people within the armed forces want to “slow down the reform process or to preserve certain perks and privileges.”
The older officers grew wealthy through the military’s control over the government, and “it has been suggested, for example, that some younger officers resent the fact that current and proposed changes to Myanmar society may deny them the opportunities for personal enrichment enjoyed by their predecessors.”
For as long as experts can see, the military will remain the real power in Myanmar, and there will be little Aung San Suu Kyi can do about it.