Myanmar’s battle against ethnic separatist groups is heating up along the Chinese border, setting Chinese troops on alert and sending thousands fleeing the country. Reuters:
Myanmar’s eight-month-old government faced a fresh crisis on Monday, after four ethnic armed groups attacked security forces in the north of the country, dealing a major blow to leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s top goal of reaching peace with ethnic minorities.
Eight people were killed and 29 wounded when a coalition of northern rebels attacked military and police outposts and a business center near an important trading hub on Myanmar’s border with China on Sunday, the government said.
China put its army on high alert and said it was providing shelter for some people who fled across the frontier to escape fighting in the towns of Muse and Kutkai, in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state. Beijing called on the parties involved to exercise calmness and restraint.
Not long ago, it seemed that the arc of history was bending the right way in Myanmar. Last year, in a country that has long been dominated by military rule, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide electoral victory, in part on promises to resolve the country’s ethnic violence. In September, President Obama rewarded Myanmar’s democratic progress by lifting all sanctions on the country. And Myanmar’s improving relationship with the U.S. has been seen by some as the rare success story to emerge from Obama’s pivot to Asia.
The latest resurgence in violence reminds us that history is never so straightforward. As the ethnic violence that has plagued Myanmar for decades rears its ugly head once again, Suu Kyi will face new pressure to forcibly tackle the threat. The conflict could also strengthen the hand of Myanmar’s military, which retains constitutional authority to dissolve parliament in cases of national emergency. China, meanwhile, will take advantage of the conflict to reassert its status as an indispensable mediator.
While Suu Kyi confronts the threat in the northeast, she is also facing growing pressure from human rights activists to address reports of widespread violence perpetrated by the military against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the northwest. In an editorial today, for instance, The New York Times calls on Suu Kyi to prove her human rights bona fides by inviting the UN in for an impartial investigation.
It is easy to issue humanitarian pleas from afar, but the West needs to recognize that this is not an easy circle to square. Like it or not, Suu Kyi is not likely to antagonize the military over the Rohingya issue just when she needs their cooperation in resolving the violence in the northeast. This is not to say that the Rohingyas’ ongoing suffering should be ignored, but only that scolding Suu Kyi at this moment is unlikely to be productive. Indeed, pressuring her into a domestically unpalatable position on a divisive issue could empower the military at her expense.
The West should be patient and allow Suu Kyi a chance to lead on her terms. If she is able to negotiate a peace in the northeast, that bodes well for the lofty hopes placed on her shoulders, and for Myanmar’s long-term democratic prospects.