Aung San Suu Kyi stepped down from her position as foreign minister in December and now says she will step down as military and civilian leaders.
The two men in charge of her country are also stepping down. The military, which ruled Myanmar with an iron hand for decades, made significant concessions in the years since the fall of the country’s military rulers in 2011, including releasing political prisoners, ending widespread censorship, and taking steps to integrate with the international community.
But under Thein Sein, the military’s influence on Myanmar has increased. His deeply unpopular coalition government has brought violence to the Rohingya minority, who were driven from their homes and into refugee camps. Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken out against the systematic attacks and blamed the army. But the international outcry from human rights activists and civil society groups has not produced the changes the government in Naypyidaw desires.
The crisis that led to her falling out with the military began last August, when Rohingya militants ambushed police posts, killing dozens. As the military responded, killing civilians and throwing young men and women off of villages and into the sea, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh. For decades, Muslim Rohingyas had been denied citizenship in the country. After the military stepped in, the Rohingya have been facing brutal treatment, possibly in part due to the impunity enjoyed by the generals.
Soon after the incident, large-scale Buddhist mobs attacked the Rohingya villages and many escaped. During the response operation that ensued, hundreds of civilians, the majority of them women and children, died. On Sunday, members of the public in the townships of Rathedaung and Maungdaw, both in Rakhine State, in Myanmar, killed at least 35 Rohingya — the U.N. said — many of whom appeared to have been caught in the crossfire.
Lesser known than the Rohingya, the violence sparked by their plight has also taken an enormous toll on the country. More than 700,000 Rohingya have now fled to refugee camps. Many more are displaced in the country, some suffering from food and water shortages.
“The Rohingya crisis has highlighted the most dramatic aspects of the absence of a civilian-led government and thereby hindered the progress made towards political and economic reform,” the Council on Foreign Relations said in a report on Myanmar. “Because of its population size, economic imbalances, poor land governance, and its ethnic makeup, Rakhine state is almost sure to make concessions on political matters of concern to the dominant ethnic groups, particularly the Rohingya, throughout Myanmar’s transitional period.”
While some see Suu Kyi as the future of the nation, in an ethnically and ethnically divided society she is ill-equipped to represent the most vulnerable.
As international pressure on the military, which has strong support among the Buddhist population, has increased, she has begun to distance herself from those responsible for what she called “ethnic cleansing.” And while Suu Kyi says she will step down from both of her roles in the civilian and military governments, there’s no guarantee she will be removed from the military. Indeed, her role will only be limited as long as she remains under the military’s thumb.
Myanmar’s future is at the heart of the current crisis. Despite her comments, the government has shown no indication that it is willing to take steps that will help the Rohingya, from stopping the ethnic cleansing to granting them citizenship and medical care.
Given the violence and the international outcry, many believe that if the people of Myanmar don’t help solve this problem, then nobody will. If that’s true, an aging Suu Kyi will not be able to carry the weight of a nation unless the new civilian government begins to move in a more inclusive direction, which will likely mean calling for change to a nation rooted in long-dead authoritarianism.