Where Myanmar Went Wrong

From Democratic Awakening to Ethnic Cleansing

Scorched earth: houses burning after sectarian clashes in Sittwe, Myanmar, June 2012. STAFF / REUTERS

Late last year, when news broke that Myanmar’s military had been systematically killing members of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, much of the world was shocked. In recent years, Myanmar (also known as Burma) had been mostly a good news story. After decades of brutal dominance by the military, the country had seen the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, score an all-too-rare democratic triumph, winning the 2015 national elections in a landslide. The NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, an internationally celebrated dissident who had received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to democratize Myanmar, became Myanmar’s de facto head of state. Many analysts and officials concluded that the county was finally on the path to democratic rule. Support poured in from Western democracies, including the United States. Myanmar had long been isolated, relying almost exclusively on China, which was content to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Now, many hoped, Suu Kyi would lead the country into the Western-backed international order.

But such hopes overlooked a fundamental reality, one that was brought into stark relief by the slaughter of the Rohingya: Myanmar’s generals continue to control much of the country’s political and economic life. Suu Kyi must strike a delicate balance, advancing democratic rule without stepping on the generals’ toes. Her government has no power over the army and can do little to end the military’s brutal campaign against the Rohingya—which, in any event, enjoys massive popular support. Yet Suu Kyi has taken the bad hand she was dealt and made it worse. She has adopted an autocratic style. She has failed to make progress in the areas where she does have influence. And she has alienated erstwhile allies in the West.


Myanmar, which has a population of 54 million, officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups—but not the Rohingya. In fact, Myanmar authorities, including Suu Kyi, refuse to even use the term “Rohingya.” But the Rohingya

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