How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 are indisputably a distinct group with a long history in Myanmar. They are the descendants of people whom British colonial authorities, searching for cheap labor, encouraged to emigrate from eastern Bengal (contemporary Bangladesh) to the sparsely populated western regions of Burma in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, there are around 2.5 million Rohingya, who constitute the world’s largest stateless population. But fewer than half a million currently reside in Myanmar; the rest have fled decades of official repression and exclusion, often crossing the border into Bangladesh, where they inhabit sprawling, squalid refugee camps. Those who have remained in Myanmar are a subset of the country’s Muslim community. The majority of Myanmar’s Muslims live in urban areas, speak Burmese, have Burmese names, and are Myanmar citizens. The Rohingya are different: most speak a dialect of Bengali, have traditionally Muslim names, and have never received citizenship. The Rohingya in both Bangladesh and Myanmar have led unusually difficult lives even by the region’s humble standards, marked by poverty, the absence of legal status, and multifaceted discrimination. Owing to their lack of resources and extreme vulnerability, the Rohingya have largely failed in their attempts at political mobilization, which have generated further resentment against them. For instance, the 1950–54 Rohingya resistance movement, which demanded citizenship and an end to discriminatory policies, was eventually crushed by the army.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a militant Rohingya faction also emerged: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which formed in 2013. Most of the ARSA’s leaders are from Bangladesh or Pakistan, and some of them have received training from jihadist veterans of the wars in Afghanistan. (The group’s chief leader was born in Pakistan and later became an imam in Saudi Arabia.) ARSA likely has fewer than 600 active members. But Myanmar officials consider it a dangerous organization. In the early morning hours of August 25, 2017, for example, about 150 ARSA militants staged coordinated attacks on police posts and an army base in Rakhine State. The confrontation ended with the deaths of 77 ARSA fighters and 12 police officers and touched off a crackdown by Myanmar’s army, which burned down scores of Rohingya villages, murdered dozens of civilians, and launched a campaign of rape against Rohingya women and girls, according to Human Rights Watch. The UN labeled the operation ethnic cleansing, and others, including French President Emmanuel Macron and eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates, have described it as an act of genocide.
By the end of 2017, 650,000 Rohingya had fled to neighboring Bangladesh, joining approximately 200,000 more who had escaped earlier waves of discrimination and violence in recent years. The large-scale forced migration seemed to have stopped by the end of last year. And last November, bowing to international pressure, Myanmar signed a Chinese-brokered agreement with Bangladesh for the tentative repatriation of the refugees to newly constructed villages. The fulfillment of this plan is at best questionable, however: it calls for Myanmar authorities to verify that each refugee did, in fact, reside in Myanmar before he or she can return. But most Rohingya have no documents to prove their prior residency. More important, few of them wish to return to a country that has persecuted them for generations.
Myanmar’s government, and especially its army, known as the Tatmadaw, has earned worldwide condemnation for the campaign against the Rohingya. Last September, the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the army’s “brutal security operation” as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” Critics singled out Suu Kyi for at best inaction and at worst providing political cover for the army’s atrocities. Regardless of how one interpreted her motives, it was hard to square her actions with her status as a human rights icon. Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the revered Burmese revolutionary who shepherded his country to independence from the United Kingdom in the 1940s. In the 1990s, “the Lady,” as she is referred to in Myanmar, led the NLD to victory in national elections. But the military nullified the results and placed her under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years, before releasing her in 2010 as a gesture meant to highlight the government’s nascent liberalization program. The disappointment in her lack of action to stop the bloodshed—or, worse, her complicity in it—has been profound. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, one of numerous Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have expressed their disillusionment, lamented the silence of his “dearly beloved sister” and said that it was “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.”
But Suu Kyi’s response should not have come as a great surprise. She has a long record of downplaying the Rohingya’s plight. In March 2017, Suu Kyi’s office dismissed detailed descriptions of Rohingya women suffering sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar’s armed forces as “fake rape.” Once a defender of press freedom, Suu Kyi has remained mum about the case of two Reuters journalists who were arrested by the military last December after investigating the military’s involvement in the killing of ten Rohingya civilians. Suu Kyi’s government did create a commission, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to study the Rohingya issue, and has promised to implement its recommendations. But last January, Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the UN and a longtime Suu Kyi supporter, quit a separate ten-member international advisory board on the Rohingya crisis that the Myanmar government had set up, calling it “a whitewash” and “a cheerleading squad for the government.” As for Suu Kyi, Richardson said, “I like her enormously and respect her. But she has not shown moral leadership on the [Rohingya] issue.”
Aung San Suu Kyi deserves a great deal of criticism. But some of her critics ignore the fundamental realities of contemporary Myanmar.
Suu Kyi deserves a great deal of criticism. But in faulting her for not publicly confronting the military, let alone restraining the generals, some critics have ignored two fundamental realities of contemporary Myanmar. First is the intensity of anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country. Hatred of the Rohingya is widespread and deep-seated, stirred up by influential extremist Buddhist monks who are the military’s political allies and who have incited violence against Rohingya. The ugly truth is that the vast majority of Burmese, including most of the NLD’s supporters, approve of the anti-Rohingya campaign. Making pro-Rohingya statements and gestures would be tantamount to political suicide for Suu Kyi and her government and would only strengthen the army’s public support.
Second, the civilian-led government has no control over the armed forces nor any means of reining them in. Even if Suu Kyi wanted to limit the military’s campaign against the Rohingya, it would be almost impossible to do so. Myanmar’s constitution, crafted by the military in 2008, ensures that the military remains far and away the country’s strongest political institution. Amending the constitution requires more than 75 percent of the votes in the legislature—and 25 percent of parliamentary seats are set aside for armed forces personnel, which ensures that no changes can be made without the military’s cooperation. In addition, the constitution reserves three key ministries for the armed forces: Defense, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs. The last of these oversees the General Administration Department, the administrative heart of the state, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of every regional and state-level government and the management of thousands of districts and townships. The constitution further safeguards the army’s interests by allowing its commander in chief to name six of the 11 members of the National Defense and Security Council, a top executive body.
The army also sets its own budget and spends it without any civilian oversight: in 2017, the budget amounted to $2.14 billion, representing 13.9 percent of government expenditures—around three percent of the national GDP and more than the combined total allotted to long-neglected health care and education. Perhaps just as consequential as the military’s political dominance is its economic clout. By some estimates, active and retired military officers and their associates control over 80 percent of the economy.
Drafting the constitution and then holding a referendum to gain the public’s endorsement represented two important steps in the military’s long-term plan to manage and control a cautious move toward a “disciplined democracy,” in its words, and to transfer responsibilities over day-to-day politics to a civilian government. Having shed the burden of governance, military elites focused on their own interests: modernizing the army and tending to their business empires. They gave up little that was dear to them, and the changes they have permitted remain easily reversible. No further democratization will occur unless the generals relinquish their constitutionally granted privileges.
Suu Kyi has been unable to alter this basic dynamic. Following the 2015 elections, she failed to persuade the military brass to amend the constitution by removing its prohibition against anyone who has family members who hold foreign passports from serving as president. This clause directly targets Suu Kyi, whose late husband, Michael Aris, was British and whose two children are British citizens. In March 2016, the NLD-controlled legislature elected a confidant of Suu Kyi’s, Htin Kyaw, as president; he has served a mostly ceremonial role. Suu Kyi created and took the position of “state counselor,” giving herself a role akin to that of a prime minister—a fully defensible workaround to the military’s move to block her from becoming president.
Less justifiable are the autocratic inclinations Suu Kyi has demonstrated since taking office and the extraordinary degree to which she has centralized power in her own hands. In addition to serving as state counselor, she also heads the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and retains the presidency of the NLD. As party chief, she has personally chosen every member of the party’s Central Executive Committee—a violation of party rules. She is a micromanager who finds it difficult to delegate; most consequential decisions require her approval, which has led to bottlenecks. She sits on at least 16 governmental committees, all of which seldom produce concrete decisions. In November 2017, the government established a new ministry, dubbed the Office of the Union Government, just to help Suu Kyi cope with her workload.
Suu Kyi has also decided to act as her own spokesperson, but she has done a poor job of communicating her administration’s policies. She prefers limited transparency: according to several NLD members of parliament with whom I have spoken, she has instructed them to not ask tough questions during parliamentary sessions and to avoid speaking to journalists. Her preference for personal loyalty over competence was illustrated by her appointment of several cabinet members with scant qualifications.
Suu Kyi is in her early 70s yet has no apparent successor, and her party is dominated by other septuagenarians who enjoy her trust but lack the energy, imagination, and skills necessary to carry out the comprehensive renewal the country needs. Although Suu Kyi has been exceedingly critical of the constitution, she has used its antidemocratic provisions when they have suited her purposes. For instance, she appointed two NLD members as chief ministers in Rakhine and Shan States, both of which are home to large minority ethnic communities—even though in both places, a candidate from a local party that represents those groups had won the popular vote.
The complex political situation in which Suu Kyi operates requires a leader with a firm hand and a clear sense of purpose. She remains very popular among ordinary Burmese, who admire her tenacity, respect her authority, and consider her the one indispensable leader. Her autocratic style and silence on the Rohingya crisis might be less troubling if her government had made significant progress on economic reform or on reconciliation with other ethnic minority groups. But it has not.
Although the NLD has been Myanmar’s main opposition group since 1988, it has never formulated a policy program beyond vague promises of democracy, the rule of law, and economic reform. One might argue that it did not need detailed proposals to succeed as an opposition party: it had an iconic leader, and it stood against the army. But even after two years in power, major questions remain about the government’s economic policies, positions on ethnic and religious issues, and plans for persuading the military to leave politics. Notwithstanding its limited room to maneuver, the government should have accomplished much more since taking office.
Decades of military control of the economy have turned Myanmar into a desperately poor country. In 2017, its per capita GDP of $1,300 was the lowest in Southeast Asia, about half of that of Laos and one-fifth of Thailand’s. GDP grew by more than six percent in 2016 and 2017, but that was a slower rate of growth than the country enjoyed in the early years of the decade. Inflation has been nearing double digits, commodity prices have increased, and the job market’s expansion has been anemic. Millions of Burmese have been forced to find employment abroad, mostly in so-called 3D jobs: tasks that are dirty, dangerous, and demeaning.
Reforming the economy should be the NLD government’s most critical task, but it waited until July 2016 to present its first major statement on the issue. The document turned out to be little more than a wish list, a general outline that identified neither policy instruments nor specific objectives to achieve within a given time frame. So far, the government’s main economic achievement has been the partial modernization of the legal framework governing investment. In January 2016, the legislature passed an arbitration law intended to boost investor confidence. Last year, it passed new rules on investment that are designed to simplify and harmonize existing regulations and that specify the privileges that will be granted to domestic and foreign investors. But the NLD has offered scant details on how the new rules will be implemented. The arrival of the NLD government had fueled hopes of increased foreign direct investment, but partly as a result of its lack of action, such investment has actually tapered off since 2015.
Suu Kyi’s record on other pressing economic issues has been even less impressive. Agriculture represents 37 percent of Myanmar’s GDP and employs, directly or indirectly, about 70 percent of the country’s labor force. But farmers tend to be extremely poor, and farming profits are among the lowest in Asia. The government must find a way to provide farmers with what they most need to increase their earnings: high-quality seeds and fertilizers, improved water control and irrigation facilities, and access to affordable credit.
Farmers also suffer from a lack of land rights. For several decades, the military expropriated hundreds of thousands of acres from helpless peasants, offering little or no compensation. In 2016, groups of farmers sent letters to the army’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, requesting the return of their land. The military’s response was to threaten the farmers and their lawyers with defamation lawsuits. Suu Kyi’s government has said that dealing with the landownership issue is a priority, but she has done little.
The military regime also grossly neglected the country’s infrastructure. Roads, railways, and public transportation systems all lie in a pitiful state of disrepair. Even more serious is the shortage of electricity: only one-third of the population has access to it, and blackouts are frequent, even in Yangon’s luxury hotels. Economic growth will put even more pressure on the electricity supply, and shortages will likely get worse. These weaknesses affect every economic sector and scare off potential investors. But Suu Kyi’s government seems to have realized the importance of infrastructure only recently. A number of plans have been drawn up, and the government has held some summits on the issue. But on this, too, there has been little action to match the government’s rhetoric.
Despite the lack of progress, relations between the civilian government and the military have settled into what Suu Kyi has described as a “normal” routine. The most charitable interpretation of Suu Kyi’s accommodation of the military is that she hopes that, over time, the generals will conclude that their interests would be best served by leaving politics. The army appears to be taking its time: Min Aung Hlaing has said that the Tatmadaw intends to reduce its presence in parliament, but he has refused to set a timetable.
Part of the problem is that the military has two conflicting goals. The generals want to transform the army—which is plagued by obsolete equipment, archaic training methods, and poor morale—into a professional force comparable to its counterparts in other countries in the region. In order to do that, the military needs help from more developed, powerful countries—help that, in the case of Western governments, is conditioned on the military leaving politics. But Western governments also insist that the government must do more to resolve its many conflicts with ethnic minority groups. In September 2017, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence announced that it would suspend educational courses it provided for the Tatmadaw, citing ongoing violence and human rights abuses. Similarly, the following month, the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of U.S. military assistance from officers and units participating in the operations in Rakhine State and rescinded invitations to senior members of Myanmar’s security forces to U.S.-sponsored events. Then, in November, a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives introduced the Burma Act of 2017, which, among other things, would reinstate sanctions against the Tatmadaw that were lifted the year before to reward the country for its putative progress and to incentivize more steps in the direction of democracy. That legislation has yet to be put to a vote. In December, however, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning “the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya,” and the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Major General Maung Maung Soe, who has overseen the brutal campaign against the Rohingya.
But the military’s troubling treatment of minorities extends far beyond the Rohingya. Several ethnic communities have been at war with the government for long periods—in some cases, ever since Burma proclaimed its independence in 1948. Together, these conflicts form something like a low-level, multifaceted civil war. Some ethnic groups bear long-held grudges against others, sometimes related to overlapping land claims. Individual ethnic communities themselves are often divided by sectarian differences. Aside from causing thousands of deaths and displacing millions, ethnic violence has prevented the consolidation of central authority over the country, as well as the formation of a shared national identity.
For decades, the military has prolonged ethnic conflicts in a bid to justify its continued rule. The fighting has also given cover to generals who profit from the drug trade (Myanmar is a major source of opium) and from the illegal export of gems, gold, and timber. But in recent years, the Tatmadaw has appeared more determined to end the civil war. In October 2015, prior to Suu Kyi’s electoral victory, eight ethnic armed organizations and the government signed the National Ceasefire Agreement, brokered by the military, although some of the largest and most influential ethnic groups stayed away.
Compared with Beijing, Washington today has little sway over Myanmar.
During her campaign, Suu Kyi repeatedly identified achieving ethnic peace as her number one priority. After the realization of that objective, she was to pursue the creation of a federal system of the sort first promised by her father in the 1940s. There is no agreement on what precise shape that system would take, except that it would grant more autonomy to ethnic groups but stop short of giving them the right to secede. Suu Kyi’s promise to pursue ethnic peace was a tactical mistake, however, since she has little influence over how the military wages its wars against ethnic armed organizations, and the idea of a federal system is anathema to the generals. Nevertheless, her administration organized conferences in August 2016 and May 2017 with the aim of persuading more ethnic armed organizations to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement; the talks brought together armed groups, the military, and the government. Predictably, the meetings achieved little besides providing a forum for grand speeches and gestures, and in the aftermath of the conferences, the fighting actually intensified in several regions. In February 2018, two additional rebel groups signed on to the cease-fire amid much fanfare. But the groups that represent four-fifths of all the ethnic armed personnel in the country remain as opposed to signing as ever. Meanwhile, the generals adamantly refuse to create a federal army that would represent the country’s ethnic groups and regions, which is one of the ethnic armed organizations’ key demands; the military falsely contends that the armed forces are already inclusive and fair. At the same time, the armed groups have refused to disavow secession—a position that the military insists they must take as part of any final agreement.
Optimists believe that the ethnic armed organizations’ chief objective is to maximize their gains on the ground in preparation for eventual peace negotiations. In reality, their ultimate goal is the establishment of a federal system. Such a system represents a redline for the Tatmadaw: although military elites have adopted an increasingly pragmatic approach toward negotiation with the ethnic armed organizations, they continue to see federalism as the first step toward the country’s disintegration. The word “federalism” is no longer taboo in public discourse, as it had been for decades, but the top brass are unlikely to relax their long-standing opposition to a federal system anytime soon.
In the face of Western opprobrium over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, there are signs that the military might abandon its relatively recent quest to placate Western governments and instead return to a strategy of reliance on its traditional patron, China. China has always been Myanmar’s top trading partner and biggest investor, and for decades, Beijing was the main sponsor of Myanmar’s military junta. Suu Kyi’s first major trip abroad as state counselor, in August 2016, took her to Beijing. Her discussions there centered on business and trade issues, especially a few large infrastructure projects, such as a $7.2 billion deep-sea port in Rakhine State that China plans to build to give Chinese ships access to the Indian Ocean. Since then, the relationship between Myanmar and China has improved; in November 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping described this moment in Chinese-Myanmar military relations as being the “best ever.” It helps that Chinese officials, unlike Western ones, do not admonish Suu Kyi and her government for their human rights violations.
Obama wanted to reward Myanmar’s progress; in hindsight, that was likely a mistake.
But the Chinese are pressing for progress on the civil war. Chinese leaders have endorsed negotiations between the Myanmar government and the country’s ethnic armed organizations, and Beijing facilitated the participation of some recalcitrant groups in the May 2017 conference. China has played a complex role in the civil war for decades, backing the government but also providing shelter, weapons, and training to some of the belligerent groups; such contacts have allowed China to extract natural resources (mostly illegally), such as jade, gold, and timber, from regions where militants operate. But it now seems that the Chinese want the violence to end because the rebels’ objectives have shifted from merely resisting government forces to improving their status within Myanmar, an aim that is more conducive to internal stability, and because the fighting has impeded economic development and trade. What’s more, the Chinese want to be seen as peacemakers in a region where they have long been regarded as a destabilizing presence.
Compared with Beijing, Washington today has little sway over Myanmar. That is a recent development: the Obama administration, in one of its undisputed foreign policy successes, managed to convince the country to take steps toward democracy. The United States was a steadfast supporter of Suu Kyi for years before she took office, and both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made historic visits to Yangon. When Suu Kyi visited Washington in September 2016, she asked Obama to lift most of the remaining U.S. sanctions on Myanmar in order to help her government grow the country’s economy. Obama obliged her; in hindsight, that was likely a mistake. Obama wanted to reward progress. But lifting the sanctions robbed Washington of precisely the kind of leverage it now needs. Indeed, democratic activists in Myanmar and elsewhere had hoped that the sanctions would stay in place until the antidemocratic features of the 2008 constitution were abolished.
Since the Rohingya crisis erupted last year, there have been few official interactions between the United States and Myanmar. Under the Trump administration, Myanmar has lost the special place it enjoyed on Washington’s foreign policy agenda during the Obama years. Then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a five-hour visit to Myanmar in November 2017. In meetings with Suu Kyi and the army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, he raised concerns about ethnic violence. At a news conference, Tillerson said that there had been “crimes against humanity,” but he did not back the idea of new economic sanctions against Myanmar. Pope Francis visited the country a few days later and called for peace and mutual respect. But neither Tillerson nor the usually outspoken pope used the term “Rohingya” during his discussions with Myanmar officials or in his public statements, likely out of a fear that doing so would aggravate an already highly charged situation and, in the case of the pope, out of a fear that it could endanger Myanmar’s small and vulnerable Catholic community.
Admittedly, the United States has few appealing policy options for stopping the ethnic cleansing. Restoring the sanctions or placing more new ones on the generals would likely just drive the military further into the welcoming arms of the Chinese, who are keen to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s flagging interest. Denunciations from Washington and other foreign capitals have failed to affect the government’s position on the Rohingya and have actually increased domestic support for the Tatmadaw, as evidenced by a number of major pro-military rallies held throughout Myanmar last fall.
Still, there are ways for the United States to push for progress. For starters, it should suspend all military-to-military engagement with Myanmar and expand assistance to a number of sophisticated but underfunded nongovernmental organizations, such as Mosaic Myanmar, a civil society group that promotes tolerance between the majority Buddhist community and Christian and Muslim minorities. Furthermore, the United States should establish or sponsor programs in Myanmar focused on health care, educational opportunities, and cultural exchanges. In a country that tends to be at best cautious of foreigners’ intentions, the United States is generally held in high regard, according to Asian Barometer surveys of public opinion—a sharp contrast to the suspicious attitudes toward China and India that prevail throughout Myanmar. There are few societies where prudent U.S. democracy promotion could find more fertile ground or where it would be more gratefully accepted. Finally, in lieu of public expressions of indignation, Washington should communicate its displeasure privately—especially through politicians with long histories of supporting Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s democratization, such as Clinton and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
As for Suu Kyi, her reduced stature abroad might further reduce her already limited leverage with the generals. She is boxed in to a degree that many critics fail to appreciate. But she has made her own situation worse through poor management and a lack of focus on issues that are under her administration’s control: improving the economy, shoring up infrastructure, and revamping the health-care and educational systems. The government should adopt a personnel policy that emphasizes merit and accomplishment instead of personal loyalty to Suu Kyi. Instead of alienating ethnic minorities and their political parties and ignoring civil society organizations, Suu Kyi ought to open a meaningful dialogue with them with a view to forming a big-tent political and social coalition that might, in time, challenge the military’s political supremacy. Suu Kyi and her administration should reverse their attacks on media freedoms. And even though the government cannot control the military, it must stop denying and defending the Tatmadaw’s atrocities and start actively protecting those who have suffered so terribly from the army’s repression.
Most important, Suu Kyi must shift gears quickly. International patience with her is almost extinguished. If she does not change course soon, she will lose what little goodwill remains.