Myanmar: ‘Saint’ Aung San Suu Kyi and the hypocrisy of imperialism

On 10 December, Aung San Suu Kyi, also known by some western commentators as ‘South East Asia’s Nelson Mandela’ appeared in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest court, which is famous for trying war criminals and genocidal leaders. However, the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi was not, as you might expect, here to condemn Myanmar’s military junta, which for so many years oppressed her, but to defend it against accusations of the genocide of the Rohingya people. On 23 January 2020, the court reached a unanimous decision that Myanmar does have a case to answer, rejecting Aung San Suu Kyi’s arguments, and concluding that the 600,000 or so Rohingyas that remain in Myanmar are at risk of genocide.

As such, she has joined the swelling ranks of ignominious Nobel Peace Prize holders such as Henry Kissinger. The swift collapse of her reputation has exposed and discredited western liberalism, with its imperialist practice of canonising its stooges as saints. It is also a sign of US imperialism’s relative loss of influence in Myanmar, so soon after it appeared to have wrested the country out of China’s control by means of the very same Aung San Suu Kyi.

During the three-day trial, Aung San Suu Kyi sat impassively through the horrifying details of the genocidal oppression of the Rohingya Muslims in the country’s north west, such as the massacre at Min Gyi village, in which around 750 people were killed, including over a hundred children under six-years-old. These events were described in graphic detail by some of the surviving victims. So widespread was the army’s offensive, that at least 700,000 Rohingyas have fled the country, mainly to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Aung San Suu Kyi 2 Image PoRAung San Suu Kyi's fall from grace has exposed western liberalism, with its imperialist practice of canonising its stooges as saints / Image: PoR

But the West’s condemnation of Myanmar is completely hypocritical and cynical. They know the ICJ will do nothing to change the situation, but for them it is useful because it helps to isolate a country they have failed to dominate. The Rohingyas are just small-change in their struggle with China.

If you want proof of this hypocrisy, look no further than the treatment of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, a US ally. Bangladesh does not recognise the rights and protections of international refugees, depriving the Rohingya of formal refugee status. The 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are denied access to education and are restricted to squalid temporary camps – just as in Myanmar. The Bangladesh government went so far as to cut off mobile phone access in the camps as a punishment for the massive demonstrations the Rohingya staged against their treatment by Bangladesh. Women and children have been kidnapped, right under the noses of border guards, in order to be sold to human traffickers.

Yet we hear absolutely no condemnation of Bangladesh’s treatment of the very same people the West is apparently so concerned about defending. There is a simple reason – Bangladesh is a key US ally. For the same reason, there is no campaign to get Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, hauled before the ICJ on charges of war crimes in Yemen, or for that matter Tony Blair for his role in setting the Middle East ablaze by helping to launch the Iraq War on the basis of outright lies.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Role

Aung San Suu Kyi’s few remaining liberal defenders argue that she is not responsible for the genocide, because her power remains restricted by the military junta, who retain the position of president and of course control the military that carried out the attack.

This is false for two main reasons. Firstly, there is plenty of evidence that she is a willing and active participant in the racist oppression of Rohingyas. They are a stateless people, as they are deprived of citizenship by the regime. As a result, they not only lack freedom of movement, but also access to basic services such as state education, as in in Bangladesh. They are a deeply oppressed people, and the regime fosters the lie that they are simply recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, when in fact it is beyond doubt that they have lived in what is now Myanmar for hundreds of years, as part of ancient Arakan.

The regime’s racist assertion that they are not an ethnicity at all, but simply illegal immigrants, is repeated quite voluntarily by Aung San Suu Kyi, who in various interviews has refused to refer to them as Rohingya, denying the existence of such a thing. In one such interview, she expressed annoyance at the fact that the interviewer was herself a Muslim, saying at the end "no one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim".

Many have recently been arrested for criticising, not the junta, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s formerly banned party. She has recently supported the arrest of journalists reporting the situation in Rakhine state (the area in which the Rohingyas live), and has made numerous statements defending the generals and their conduct, calling the accusations “fabricated”. At a lecture in Singapore, Suu Kyi personally defended the military’s actions against the Rohingya, besides also saying that her government’s relationship with the Tatmadaw (the military) was “not so bad” (The Diplomat, 30.11.19). The most critical she has been is, at one point, to crassly say that “the situation [with the Rohingya] could have been handled better”. She has even praised China, saying that “Myanmar values China’s understanding of the Rakhine issue [note that she will not refer to the Rohingyas directly, only the state in which they live, which is named after a different ethnicity], which is complicated and delicate”.

Secondly, her strategy is based not on undermining the junta, but on becoming part of it, as is proven by this official propaganda poster which commemorates her trip to the Hague, featuring Aung San Suu Kyi laughing alongside leading generals:

We stand with you Image fair useImage: fair use

In fact, she had no obligation to travel to the Hague to represent the government. The fact that she chose to go, and the way her party used this visit, tell us much about her politics. Her party, the long-persecuted National League for Democracy (NLD), which she is known to run as a personal dictatorship, has organised rallies around Myanmar to celebrate her defence of the regime.

According to Frontier Myanmar:

“[T]ravel agencies have offered discounted rates for supporters to visit The Hague during the trial, with Facebook pages connecting visitors with homestays in the area. One travel operator is organising a five-day tour to The Hague that includes visa and transportation as part of a $2,150 package, said employee Ma July, a prohibitive rate for most in the developing nation.” (Frontier Myanmar, 9th December 2019).

For those not able to travel halfway around the globe, the trial was live streamed on giant screens in major cities, like the World Cup final.

For Aung San Suu Kyi and her regime, the trial is a political opportunity. Her strategy is clear: boost her and her party’s sagging fortunes by rallying everyone around the flag, by posing as the defender of an unfairly treated, embattled nation (hence the official slogan ‘We Stand With You’). This is necessary because the NLD has been losing support, especially amongst the many ethnic minorities that make up Myanmar. As The Diplomat explains, her party has been “battered by the emergence of new political parties, sluggish economic growth, the slow pace of the peace process, a spike in ethnic conflict in northern and western areas, a sharp rise in defamation cases against civil society members and journalists, rising discontent against mega projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sharp global rhetoric against the country over the Rohingya crisis, fresh sanctions by the European Union (EU), and stunted progress on earlier campaign promises.” (The Diplomat, 30.11.19)

In the short term, the strategy is clearly working, at least amongst the religious and ethnic leaders outside of the NLD’s core Bamar (the dominant ethnic group), Buddhist base. For example, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo rejected the use of “extreme terms” such as genocide and ethnic cleansing, which he warned would “not assist us in our journey toward peace and democracy”. He asked the international community not to “punish the people of Myanmar as a whole”, while a Christian group held a prayer session in Yangon on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi. Even the leader of the Myanmar Muslim Network, U Myint Thein, defended Aung San Suu Kyi’s “bravery” (Frontier Myanmar op cit). Even the leaders of ethnic militias actively at war with the regime, such as the Shan State Army-North and the United Wa State Army, put out statements in defence of Aung San Suu Kyi and the regime’s actions.

There can be no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi is part and parcel of the regime that perpetrated this genocide. She, like the generals, is using anti-Muslim racism to further her political power, and is openly associating with and defending the crimes of the junta that formerly oppressed her. Her behaviour is graphic proof of the hypocrisy of liberals, who are always happy to jettison their heroic fight against oppression once they and their class (the capitalists) have what they want. While she may no longer be oppressed, the impoverished and exploited people of Myanmar most certainly are, to say nothing of the stateless Rohingya.

Aung San Suu Kyi is herself surprisingly candid about her reasons for doing a deal with the junta to get into power. As she delivered the 43rd Singapore Lecture in September 2018, she gave an authentic expression of liberalism’s cowardice when she said:

“We do not want to encourage the kind of revolutions that [could] turn our country upside down. We will be patient but we will be persistent.”

Her recent appearance in the Hague is justified along similar lines – by doing the junta a favour, they will hopefully grant her the (minimal) democratic reforms she wants. But it is crystal clear that they will never grant democratic reforms that truly threaten their power and privilege, thus this liberal path reveals itself as nothing but complicity in the efforts of the ruling class to deceive the masses. The only way to remove the junta from power is precisely through such a revolution that will ‘turn the country upside down’.

Chinese imperialism

Myanmar’s failure to make the transition into Washington’s camp can only mean one thing – a rapid return to Beijing’s. Part of the junta’s motivation for ‘opening up’ to the West by setting Aung San Suu Kyi free in 2010, was to play off the two imperial powers against one another. As a result, Chinese infrastructure projects, such as the Myitsone Dam (construction work began in 2009), and the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone, were shelved or scaled back. This put a spanner in the works of China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) plan to expand its sphere of influence and control of trade routes and markets, since the port in the Kyaukphyu site was to be a key outlet into the Indian ocean, to lessen China’s dependence on the Malacca strait, controlled by the US Navy.

But Myanmar has not found US imperialism to be as lucrative or helpful as it had hoped, and China remains next door. The western press’ entirely hypocritical outrage over the oppression of the Rohingyas has only accelerated Myanmar’s return to China’s camp. Throughout this period, China has stood firmly by the regime, and shielded it from UN Security Council motions.

Now it is cashing in, demanding that all its BRI plans are unblocked and that work on them rapidly recommences. China’s loyalty to Myanmar’s regime will not go unrewarded. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken it upon herself to make the case for these infrastructure developments, visiting Xi Jinping in December 2017 to sign an agreement to develop the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), in spite of their unpopularity due to the environmental damage and displacement of ethnic minorities they will cause.

On Friday 17 January, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese president to make an official visit to the country in 19 years, and attended a lavish banquet hosted by none other than former western stooge Aung San Suu Kyi, who openly stated beforehand that the visit would be used to “build high-level cooperation over the BRI and developing the CMEC” (The Irrawaddy, 9 December 2019)

In this respect, Aung San Suu Kyi is in absolute agreement with the generals,

“Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said China is Myanmar’s ‘pauk-phaw’ brother and ‘trusted friend forever’, adding that he will support the Myanmar government to establish new goals around a comprehensive strategic partnership with China...The senior general said that the Myanmar military will also support ‘speeding up’ cooperation on China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and ‘earnestly promote’ the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC)... In Yangon, the multi-billion-dollar New Yangon City project is also a part of the CMEC plan. The two governments have also agreed to implement three economic cooperation zones along their shared border in Kachin and Shan states.” (Ibid)

Whilst Myanmar is drifting into China’s sphere of influence, it is still attempting to play the US and China off against one another, a game the US is only too happy to play, its ‘humanitarian’ concerns about the Rohingyas notwithstanding. In November, US Ambassador Scot Marciel hosted a jobs and opportunities fair in Myitkyina, at which he proudly stated that the US is “committed to implementing development programmes in an open, transparent manner… to listen and learn”. However, no concrete development programmes were proposed. Just a few days later, the Chinese embassy organised a similar event, at which the ambassador took a leaf out of US imperialism’s playbook by posing for photographs whilst handing out rice, cooking oil and laptops, all under the shiny new banner of ‘China Aid’.

Despite the US’s best efforts, Chinese investment in Myanmar is, and will remain, significantly larger. Afterall, China shares a border with Myanmar, and Myanmar has a large coastline on the Indian ocean, to which China needs access. It therefore has not only the means, but also a far greater need than the US, to invest heavily in the country.

United Wa State Army Image public domainChina combines the 'carrot' of investment with the 'stick' of well-armed militias under its sphere of influence that it can use to destabilise the regime in Naypyidaw at a moment's notice / Image: public domain

China’s proximity not only gives it a greater carrot, but also a bigger stick with which to threaten Myanmar. Myanmar has a long history of civil war and ethnic conflicts, many of which are still active. Various militias still operate and control tracts of territory. In Rakhine state, where the Rohingyas live, the Arakan army, a Rakhine nationalist militia (note that this ethnic minority is separate to the Rohingya, and is Buddhist), still kidnaps army generals and engages in skirmishes. The weapons in the possession of many of these militias are from China. For instance, only last year a massive cache of weapons belonging to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army was recovered by the Myanmar army, who reported that all of them were Chinese made.

The biggest and best-armed of these militias is the United Wa State Army, which has an estimated 30,000 active military personnel, controlling territory along the border with China. It is quite openly backed by China, recently hosting a full-blown military parade showing off its advanced Chinese weaponry, including drones, tanks and helicopters. Its military personnel are trained by Chinese military officers, who as a result are able to produce ammunition for the Chinese weaponry they employ.

In other words, China controls a massive military force and territory within Myanmar. It can threaten the regime in Naypyidaw with a resumption of ethnic conflicts and even outright civil war at a moment’s notice. Conversely, it can also step in as a ‘peace negotiator’, using its considerable ‘skills’ with the militias it has armed, to create the peaceful conditions necessary to foster economic confidence and investment.

These ‘sticks’ no doubt played an enormous role in undermining Myanmar’s ‘pivot’ to the US around 2012. U Ye Htut, the Information Minister in U Thein Sein’s government that made this pivot, recently stated that “it was no coincidence that following the suspension of the [Chinese sponsored] Myitsone Dam project and improvements in relations with the West, new ethnic armed groups appeared in northern Myanmar and armed conflicts in Kachin and northern Shan states intensified. Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that none of the ethnic armed groups along the Chinese border agreed to join the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement three years later” (The Irrawaddy, 26 November 2019).

Thus, the oppression of the Rohingyas forms just one of many ethnic conflicts in Myanmar that have become part of an international game of chess between the US and China. The international promotion of Aung San Suu Kyi prior to her release from house arrest was part of the US strategy to undermine the military regime; her subsequent public disgrace is in turn a reflection of the US’ inability to fully wrest Myanmar from China’s embrace.

The ICJ’s Ruling

Many will feel the ICJ’s rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s arguments, and its judgement that Myanmar has probably intended to commit genocide, vindicate the role of the ICJ, the UN which oversees it, and the human-rights-based approach in general.

In reality, it is precisely the ‘guilty’ verdict that condemns this liberal, bourgeois approach. It immediately poses the question: what sentence will it deliver, how will it enforce it, and in general what power does the ICJ wield over states like Myanmar?

Having concluded that Myanmar has a case to answer, the ICJ is declaring that it has jurisdiction over UN member state Myanmar. What does this jurisdiction amount to? It has ordered Myanmar to take “provisional measures” to protect the remaining 600,000 Rohingya within Myanmar, and to enable the 700,000 or so that fled to return, and to “preserve the evidence” of its possible attempted genocide. The ICJ also demands of Myanmar that it submit a report on these measures within four months.

Rohingya oppression Image public domaiJustice for the Rohingya people cannot be found in the hypocritical and impotent courts of bourgeois powers, but only in the strength of mass struggle of ordinary people against the regime / Image: public domain

What if Myanmar refuses? It has already produced its own internal report stating there was no genocide at all. If it refuses to comply, the case is referred to the UN Security Council, on which China enjoys a veto. This is a weapon it can hardly resist using when the US has so liberally used vetoes against taking action against its allies, such as Israel. In that case, Myanmar’s debt to China will be clearer still.

Furthermore, the ICJ has not ruled that Myanmar has committed genocide, only that there is a continuing danger to the existing Rohingya population, and that “there is a case to answer”. This is why it needs Myanmar to “preserve evidence” – so that it can perform an investigation. Quite how it will be known whether or not Myanmar has “preserved” evidence within its own territory, is unclear. Overall, it is thought the case could take 10 years to reach a conclusion, which again, given China’s shielding of the regime, will achieve nothing anyway. The best the ICJ might be able to achieve is the imposition of sanctions on Myanmar, which in itself is a reactionary measure that will only worsen the lives of the ordinary people of Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s very public fall from grace has exposed the cynicism of imperialist machinations. It has revealed that those canonised as saints are bargaining chips in a struggle of capitalist interests, and are chosen not because of their courage and capacity to lead a fight for freedom, but precisely because they represent capitalist interests and are malleable, helping to control and limit any movements from below. In this case, she turned out to be a little too malleable to the powers that be; that is, the military junta and China.

What has been revealed very clearly is that the masses cannot put any faith whatsoever in bourgeois ‘saints’ to fight for their freedom and living conditions. Such people use the suffering of the masses as a platform for their own personal interests, and those of their class and of imperialist powers. They are quite prepared to look the other way, or even to actively promote, prejudice and racism, as a means of dividing and confusing working people. Justice for the Rohingya people cannot be found in the hypocritical and impotent courts of bourgeois powers, but only in the strength of mass struggle of ordinary people against the regime.

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