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Human Rights Activists Lose Faith In Burma's Leader

Walter Russell Mead

Human rights advocates are accusing Burma’s leader, Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of inaction during a brutal counterinsurgency drive against a Muslim minority. The New York Times:

As the Myanmar Army unleashes a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Rohingya in the north, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, has remained nearly silent, putting her status as an exemplar of democratic values and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in a different light.

Human rights advocates accuse her of condoning a military campaign designed to drive the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in this majority-Buddhist nation, off their land in Rakhine State and out of the country. The United Nations human rights agency has said the abuses may amount to crimes against humanity.

The inability to anticipate Aung San Sun Kyi’s political constraints on the issue demonstrates the continuing failure of human rights activists either to understand the world or to develop wise strategies for dealing with it. You don’t have to be a Burma expert to appreciate the critical roles that ethnic nationalism and Buddhist identity politics play in Burmese life, or to understand how those forces shape options available to political activists.

Tragically, the conflict involving the Rohingyas is intractable in a democratic Burma. No political leader in the country could survive the electoral cost of doing what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would like to see happen. While human rights advocates point out, rightly and correctly, that most of the Rohingya are in families that have lived in Burma for generations, Burmese nationalists remember that the earlier immigration came when the British, having conquered Burma by force, allowed mass immigration by non-Burmese, mostly from British India. Resentment against this tide, which led, for example, to Burmese natives becoming a poor minority in their own capital, was and remains one of the chief unifying elements in Burmese nationalism.

Given that Buddhist monks and religious leaders, who oppose the Rohingya presence on both religious and nationalist grounds, have been the key to democratic movements in modern Burma, and that no political leader in a democratic Burma could afford to fight both the Burmese nationalist tradition and the Buddhist clergy, hoping that Aung San Suu Kyi could rule Burma as a kind of proxy for Western human rights groups is a lunatic idea.

However, myth-making and wishful thinking have always been a major ingredient in the politics of the human rights world, and the human rights community (with some honorable exceptions) transformed the Burmese story into a human rights fairy tale. Aung San Suu Kyi was the beautiful princess guarded by the evil dragon of a military junta; the Western human rights community was the golden hero who freed the princess so that Burma could live happily ever after, with Rohingyas and Buddhist monks reconciling under the spell of Western liberal ideology.

What seems to be happening instead is that the generals know that attacking the Rohingyas helps them at home with the Buddhist clerics and with nationalist opinion, while it puts Suu Kyi in a tight spot. She can toe the line of the human rights crusaders, and watch her political support in Burma dwindle and divide, or she can side with Burmese nationalists, let the Rohingya suffer, and lose her halo the way other ex-favorites of the liberal Wilsonians like the Israelis and Paul Kagame have done over the years.

What she appears to be trying to do is to walk the middle line, saying as little as possible about something that can only hurt her. This may not look heroic to people who live thousands of miles away and are dedicated to the politics of moral narcissism, but it is difficult to think of any alternative course that would do more good and less harm.

The human rights world has valuable contributions to make in our difficult times, but to make them it is going to have to smarten up. That will be hard for organizations who live or die based on fundraising among warm-hearted but sometimes pudding-headed constituents, but if you really care about human rights as opposed to a paycheck and a fat frequent-flyer account, this is something you have to learn to do.

Meanwhile, here is something to remember: democracy in Burma means trouble for the Rohingya, just as the rise of Jacksonian democracy in America once meant trouble for the Indians. History is more of a river than an arc, and many strange tributaries come together to form its complex and often destructive flood.

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