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HomeInternational RelationsAs world leaders gather at UN, Burma’s global standing in decline

As world leaders gather at UN, Burma’s global standing in decline

It was a tiny South Asian archipelago best known as a tropical tourist getaway that was among the first to take a decisive step away from the Burmese government, signalling its abhorrence for the spiralling crisis in Arakan State.

Shortly after the Maldives announced earlier this month that it was cutting all trade relations with Burma, more than half a dozen states and non-governmental entities began to also distance themselves from a nation that was only just beginning to rehabilitate its international reputation in recent years. Citing the consequences of the anti-insurgency campaign launched by the Tatmadaw in the wake of 25 August attacks by Rohingya militants on police outposts and a Burmese military base, the Maldivian government announced on 4 September that all bilateral trade would come to an immediate end.

The Maldives’ call for the United Nations secretary-general to investigate allegations of widespread violence, including rape and extrajudicial killings, was answered at the UN in New York this week.

Speaking from UN headquarters on 13 September, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the situation on Burma’s western border with Bangladesh as “catastrophic.”

“Grievances that have been left to fester for decades have now escalated beyond Myanmar’s borders, destabilising the region. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic. When we met last week, there were 125,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled into Bangladesh. That number has now tripled to nearly 380,000.”

Since Guterres’ remarks, the UN says the number of displaced has risen further still, to over 420,000 — approaching half of the entire Rohingya population estimated to have resided in Burma as of 2014. It is a figure that rivals and very likely will ultimately surpass the population of the Maldives.

The criticism of the Burmese government hasn’t ended with Guterres. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced this week that her government is suspending its training programme of Burmese military officers, as a direct consequence of the Rohingya crisis. Leaders from France and Canada also made their concerns known, with French President Emanuel Macron condemning what he described as “ethnic cleansing.”

At least two British universities, the city that hosts her alma mater, and the UK government have contributed to a tide of growing disillusionment with the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi.

Board members of the city council of Oxford — namesake of the prestigious British university that Suu Kyi attended in the 1960s — have told the Oxford Mail that they are mulling rescinding the Freedom of Oxford award, which they bestowed upon her in 1997. Suu Kyi has often spoke of her special connection to the town and world-renowned university it hosts — where she and her late husband Michael Aris lived before she returned to Burma in 1988. It was that fateful year that she would begin her political ascendance and, three years later, win the Nobel Peace Prize for her opposition to the ruling junta of the time in the name of democracy and human rights.

Bristol University and the school union at the London School of Economics are also reported to be reviewing honours awarded to Suu Kyi.

Britain’s second-largest trade union, UNISON, also opted to part ways with the former democracy darling, who had been awarded her an honorary membership. UNISON’s president, Margaret McKee, described the plight of the Muslim minority as “appalling.”

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights are just some of the slew of INGOs that have denounced the government’s handling of the biggest challenge to confront Burma’s de facto leader Suu Kyi since her administration took power some 18 months ago.


The unfolding crisis has not gone unnoticed in Washington. The Arizona senator, former US presidential candidate and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John McCain, removed a clause from a defence budget bill that would have funded joint-military relations between the United States and Burma. In a letter to the state counsellor, McCain urged her to “take an active role” in ending the crisis.

Alongside Senator Richard Durbin, McCain sponsored a senatorial condemnation of Suu Kyi’s perceived failure to intervene on behalf of the stateless Muslim minority. But Suu Kyi’s long-time ally in the US Congress, Mitch McConnell, resisted the move and defended her unenviable constitutional restrictions, noting that she holds no sway over the defence, home or border affairs ministries within her own cabinet.

On Wednesday, US Vice President Mike Pence issued the strongest condemnation yet from Washington, characterising the Tatamadaw response as one of “terrible savagery.”

Regional superpower China has thus far been one of the few major voices to offer its support for the government’s response. On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Indonesian counterpart that the conflict is “complex and sensitive,” offering Beijing’s support in seeking a swift resolution.

On Tuesday morning, Suu Kyi addressed the Burma-based foreign diplomatic corps, global observers and her domestic audience. Following a speech that intended to assure the international community that her government both takes the concerns of its detractors seriously, and understands the complex inter-religious dynamics of Arakan State, the country’s de facto leader received mixed reviews.

Among the first to react was the Netherlands’ ambassador to Burma. He issued a sombre assessment on Twitter: “[W]e feared denial and hoped for a message of compassion and justice: neither has come true.”

Those hoping the remarks of Burma’s vice president, Henry Van Thio, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York would strike a more compassionate tone were also disappointed. The former military man told the assembly on Wednesday that while it is understandable that much of the world is focused on Arakan, “the security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the Code of Conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint, and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians,” echoing the remarks made by Suu Kyi days earlier.

For its part, the Tatmadaw and its commander-in-chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, have largely managed to avoid the kind of pointed criticism heaped on the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi. It is perhaps a telling indicator of the wider world’s understanding — or lack thereof — of Burma’s unconventional power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian government.

But the Tatmadaw was moved to respond to Britain’s unceremonious dumping of their bilateral military training programme. Two days after the UK prime minister made the announcement, Burmese state media carried the official response: that the military will “never, ever send any trainees to Britain [in the future].”



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