The world cannot wait for Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver freedom in Burma

The world cannot wait for Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver freedom in Burma
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This year marks the 70th anniversary of Burma’s independence from Britain. In that time, the expectations of an entire nation for peace, prosperity and freedom have been borne by one family, first by General Aung San, who secured independence in 1948, then by his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate, pro-democracy leader and now de facto head of state.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been essential to liberalizing Burma, but she alone cannot fix what ails it. She does not have constitutional power. She does not have political will. But there are things she can do to keep Burma’s nascent democracy from crumbling. A strong policy and swift action from the United States and other democratic nations must complement that.

The Tatmadaw’s assaults on Rohingya Muslims are the latest in a decades-long practice of brutalizing ethnic and religious minorities in Burma. Civil war has raged in Kachin State, Shan State and other regions, killing thousands and dislocating millions. Despite formal talks in 2016 and 2017, peace remains elusive.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Rohingya are in the crosshairs. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya women, children and men have fled to Bangladesh since last August, following the military’s scorched-earth response to an attack by militants. The inhumanity with which innocent civilians have been treated is abhorrent. Urgency is required to ensure they receive justice, especially amid reports that Burma’s government is bulldozing Rohingya villages and wiping away evidence of the military’s crimes.

Some Burma watchers believe Aung San Suu Kyi has made a short-term calculation to appease the military and public opinion, which is largely unsupportive of the Rohingya, so as to preserve long-term prospects for democracy. Whether true or not, the assault against the Rohingya is an assault on human freedom and democracy. It could prove her undoing if international support further erodes and domestic instability rises, giving the generals an excuse to reassert total control.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s powers might be limited, but she can and must use her moral authority to convey that hate and the persecution of any group, including the Rohingya, tears at the nonviolent fabric of Buddhism, with which the majority identifies. She also can make a stronger case for United Nations and other international help to facilitate Rohingya returns and implement the recommendations by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State that address the development, security and human rights crises confronting the region. Burma’s former junta was roundly criticized for eschewing outside assistance during the Cyclone Nargis crisis in 2008. Burma’s current government is not above such criticism now.

The United States has condemned the violence as ethnic cleansing and contributed $104 million in refugee and emergency assistance. A U.S. policy that strongly supports Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur who has built the case for crimes against humanity, also can get results. China and Russia are obstacles to justice and are facilitating the Burmese military’s impunity.

Bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate would start to hold Burma’s generals accountable by banning military-to-military programs and imposing targeted visa restrictions and sanctions. The Burma Human Rights and Freedoms Act was approved in February by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congress should move quickly to a final floor vote. Restoring the executive order that declared a national emergency with respect to Burma and helped guide U.S. sanctions from 1997 to 2016 should be explored.

Since Burma’s transition to quasi-civilian rule, most political prisoners have been released, civil society has emerged from the shadows, universities have reopened, and independent media have multiplied. Yet the arrest of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were investigating the violence in Rakhine State, shows how much the military still fears the free press and how fragile democracy is. The two reporters should be released immediately.

Even with the military’s hold on 25 percent of Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi could leverage the majority held by the National League for Democracy to amend or replace laws that are used to stifle press freedom and other civil liberties. This includes the colonial-era State Secrets Act, under which the Reuters reporters have been charged. The impact of such reforms would extend beyond the Rakhine crisis and help foster a much needed national climate of trust and transparency.

The United States and other democracies should increase aid in support of the Rohingya and Burmese democratic institutions. Now more than ever, the Burmese people need our help in securing liberty. As the House version of the legislation on Burma makes clear, “The United States policy since 1988 has fostered positive democratic reforms in Burma.” That policy must remain robust in word and in deed.

As one young Burmese Buddhist stated at a recent George W. Bush Institute emerging leaders forum, “When we align on basic principles, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Rohingya or any other minority group. It’s all about building trust. Unless we … talk to each other and understand each other, we will never [reach] a peaceful society.” Emerging leaders like these are as much the hope of Burma today as Aung San Suu Kyi. Through private and public efforts, they need continued engagement. It remains in our moral and strategic interest to provide it.

Waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver on the promise of freedom in Burma isn’t enough. It’s too much, even for the resolute lady, and a mistake both emerging democracies and their western allies have made before. That is why continuing to invest in the next generation of leaders in Burma is vital.

Paula Dobriansky served as undersecretary of democracy and global affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2001 to 2009. Amanda Schnetzer is the director of global initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute.