Myanmar is once again making headlines for all the wrong reasons. After the Rohingya crisis of 2012-2013 and after the South East Asian migration crisis of 2015, people were hopeful that the situation in the country would start to turn a corner.
The first proper democratic elections in decades in the country took place in November 2015 and these elections propelled to power Nobel Peace Prize icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement. For a while, international observers and the oppressed peoples of Myanmar alike have allowed themselves to hope that the worst had already passed, and that the future could be a better place.
In the past few weeks, however, all those hopes have been dashed.
Late last year, a group of insurgents who call themselves the Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army (ARSA) started attacking security outposts belonging to the Myanmar army in Rakhine state, the native state of the Rohingya.
In response, the Army has counter-attacked not just against militants or suspected militants, but against the entire Rohingya ethnic group. Rapes and extra-judicial killings by the Army against civilians had been reported to international humanitarian groups from October onwards, and there were fears that the situation would quickly spiral out of control.
This did not happen straight away, although the situation in Rakhine remained tense. Now, it has.
After the most recent ARSA attack on 24th August, the army has started what it terms an “anti-terrorist clearing operation”.
In actual terms, this looks more like an all out war on the Rohingya community. We have reports of the Army clearing entire villages and raping and killing women and children in the process, with well over a dozen Rohingya settlement set ablaze with fires visible from satellite imagery.
We have reports of the Myanmar border agency shooting at Rohingya refugees trying to make it across the border into Bangladesh and the Army setting up mine fields on the paths on the border crossings to ensure no Rohingya return.
And of course, there are in the region of 150,000 refugees and counting who have already made it to Bangladesh just since August 24. That number is a staggering 15-20 per cent of the entire estimated Rohingya population in Myanmar.
In just two weeks. We are now closer than ever to complete ethnic cleansing in Rakhine state.
And yet, despite all that human suffering, one of the most reported aspects of this crisis in the international media has been the puzzling response of the leader of the country, the long-loved global icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Why is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate so casually presiding over de facto ethnic cleansing in her newly ‘democratic’ country?
To begin with, her initial response has been deafening silence. In a pattern that has frustrated international observers for months now, Ms Suu Kyi has been trying to extricate herself from the controversy, so that she can play both sides: she would be able to support the army in private, and excuse herself of any responsibility in public on the international stage.
That approach had already been wearing thin, and now things have finally come to a head. She has been called out for this cynical politicking, and has been effectively cornered into choosing a side.
She chose the side of the Army in a dramatic fashion when she announced on September 6 that the news concerning the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine was “fake news helping terrorists”.
So why is Ms Suu Kyi choosing to side with the Army as it carries out ethnic cleansing against a people she is supposed to represent as a democratically elected leader?
The most sympathetic voices would make the point that Ms Suu Kyi’s civilian government does not have authority over internal security matters. The Military establishment who controlled the country prior to its current transition to democracy maintains sovereign authority over that aspect of governance. It is within the de jure purview of the military to carry out security operations against insurgent groups.
But carrying out security operations against insurgent groups is not the same as raping and killing women and children, burning down civilian villages, or setting up minefields in chokepoints on the way towards the Bangladeshi border and then herding a mass of people towards them.
Given the moral authority Aung San Suu Kyi claims to have, she has the capacity, and the duty, to speak out against such humanitarian abuses. And she now carries with her enough of the people of Myanmar that her voice would have power against the military establishment.
But Ms Suu Kyi has changed. She is no longer the campaigner the world knew and loved. She is a politician in power, and she calculates like a politician in power.
She is making a calculation that the Rohingya issue is not worth confronting the military over. Doing so, she believes, might prompt the military to halt and reverse the transition to democracy which started in 2008 and is still far from being completed.
The military have framed their “clearing operations” as essential to national security, and if the civilian government intervened on behalf of the “enemies of the state”, the Military would have constitutional grounds on which it could retake direct control of the government.
Aung San Suu Kyi has spent her life working towards bringing democracy to Myanmar. She can claim much credit for what progress has been made so far. You would almost have to be sympathetic to the position she finds herself in. Until, that is, you understand that ethnic cleansing is a price she is willing to pay to protect her life’s work.
There can be no justification for allowing ethnic cleansing to take place, and there can be no sympathy for a leader who makes such a choice. After all, what is the value of democracy if it cannot protect the lives and livelihoods of the people it is supposed to represent?
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst Publishers & Oxford University Press).