Democracy Lab

Burma's Fallen Idol

Her country is in crisis. But human rights heroine Aung San Suu Kyi isn't giving Burma the leadership it needs.

Years ago, during a brief break in Aung San Suu Kyi's long years of detention, a fellow congressional staffer and I visited Burma's democracy leader at her lakeside home in Rangoon. It was the late 1990s, not quite 10 years after her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its ethnic allies won a smashing victory over the ruling junta's party in a parliamentary election. Soon after our meeting, the generals cut her off from the world again. It would be more than another 10 years before she emerged from house arrest.

My colleague, unlike me, said he did not embrace an American policy closely tied to Aung San Suu Kyi, her views on sanctions (she was strongly in favor), and her determination to see the NLD's electoral victory respected. Anyway, he said, democracy just brings another set of problems.

"I'd like to have those problems," Aung San Suu Kyi replied.

Now she does -- and her response to them, particularly the surge in anti-Muslim bigotry and violence, has tarnished her image abroad while raising concerns about the future of Burma's tentative political reform. 

One year ago, riots, arson and murder targeted Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine (Arakan) state after three men from the community raped and murdered a Buddhist woman. This mainly spontaneous violence was followed, according to Human Rights Watch, by a more orchestrated campaign in October. Since then, religious violence has spread across Burma, targeting Muslims more integrated and less vulnerable than the Rohingya, a population that has endured longstanding discrimination. A report by Physicians for Human Rights describes a March pogrom in Meiktila, in central Burma, in which 100 people died and armed groups destroyed homes and mosques. 

On June 20, 12 of Aung San Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates issued a statement calling upon the Burmese government to prevent violence against Muslims and other ethnic minorities. 

Given the Buddhist teachings of compassion and non-violence, Burma seems an unlikely, even inhospitable place for bigotry and racial hatred. In fact, however, experts fear that the anti-Muslim prejudice is deeply rooted there. "Buddhist kings drew their legitimacy from their institutional support for the monkhood and from a cosmology that presented the well-being of the Buddhist community as an indicator of the strength of the nation," writes Matthew J. Walton, a scholar at George Washington University. "Thus, threats to Buddhism also function as threats to the nation."

After Yugoslavia and Iraq, we are no longer shocked when long-suppressed religious and ethnic conflicts complicate democratic change. The problem is not only that these fault lines exist, but also that quite often they are accepted as innate human phenomena. In Indonesia, as President Suharto was faltering, some policymakers were quick to suggest that Indonesia's ethnic and sectarian divisions made Suharto's authoritarianism a better option than a democratic transition. "'Amok' is a Malay word" some tutted at the time, although in the event, Indonesia never experienced the instability and blood-letting so many predicted.

Among the instigators of the anti-Muslim campaign is U Wirathu, a radical, Mandalay-based monk, who has shot to prominence for his racist sermons, calls for anti-Muslim laws, and association with the "969 campaign," which urges boycotts of Muslim businesses. The number 969 refers to important components of Buddhism and, according to Walton, may serve as "a symbolic counter to the number 786, a numerological shorthand for Islam used among some Muslims in Asian countries."

The response from the prominent pro-democracy figures has ranged from weak to worse. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to speak about human rights abroad, and about her admiration for Burma's army abroad. On a visit to Burma last August, expecting a youth's idealism on race, I ventured my surprise at this to a young activist in his early 30s. Instead, he said he too had ugly things to say about the Rohingya. (I didn't pursue it.) The Human Rights Watch report was challenged by prominent members of the 88 Generation Students Group, which Human Rights Watch has spent years supporting. One of them, Min Zaya, called the report "an insult to the nation." Another young dissident told me that he held more tolerant views, but expressed respect for U Wirathu's religious stature.

While Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow democrats have hung back, some monks have stepped forward. "I deeply denounce these religious, racial and commercial conflicts with no exceptions," the revered monk Sitagu Sayadaw told an audience in Rangoon on March 30, 2013. "I firmly believe other religious denominations share the same concept, and no god prescribed conflict of any kind." Ashin Issariya, a religious leader who enjoys considerable respect for his prominent role in the 2007 protests against the military junta, belongs to a network of monks and monasteries that provided aid and shelter for displaced Muslims. In the past few days, a conclave of monks has met to reject the violence and shunted aside U Wirathu's proposal to outlaw inter-religious marriages.

The euphoria that comes with the beginnings of freedom and democracy are bound to give way to frustration and cynicism as the problems suppressed and festering under dictatorial rule come to the surface. I recall reading that after his release from a Burmese jail, a political prisoner expressed a yearning to return to prison, just for a few days, to regain the clarity of purpose that enabled him to survive.

During her years of struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded prizes named for human rights heroes the world over: the Sakharov prize, the Wallenberg prize, the Gandhi prize. In 1991 she also won the Nobel Peace Prize, though she was unable to go to Oslo to receive it. When she finally picked it up last year, she spoke movingly of the "oneness of humanity," and how she had passed her time in isolation reflecting on the Burmese concept of peace, describing it as a "beneficial coolness that comes when a fire is extinguished."

It would be good to hear Aung San Suu Kyi give a speech like this again. She may judge that the realities of her political situation require something else. I believe the opposite is true.

Today, Burma needs a Tolerance Prize. How sad to think that, if such a prize existed, Aung San Suu Kyi would not even be on the shortlist.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images


Why Is China Talking to the Taliban?

Inside Beijing’s plan to set up shop in post-Karzai Kabul.

Hamid Karzai's derailment of this week's planned U.S. peace talks with the Taliban may have been a disappointment to Washington's hopes of ending its longest war -- but it disappointed Beijing, too. China welcomed the breakthrough in the Qatar process, and sees a political settlement in Afghanistan as increasingly important for its economic and security interests in the region. As a result, China's support for reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban has become a fixture of its burgeoning diplomatic activity on Afghanistan's post-2014 future.

Over the last year, China has been expanding its direct contacts with the Taliban and sounding them out on security issues that range from separatist groups in the Chinese region of Xinjiang to the protection of Chinese resource investments, according to interviews with officials and experts in Beijing, Washington, Kabul, Islamabad, and Peshawar. While Beijing would like to see the reconciliation talks succeed in preventing Afghanistan from falling back into civil war, it is not counting on their success, and thus is preparing to deal with whatever constellation of political forces emerges in Afghanistan after the United States withdraws.

While even tentative U.S. and European meetings with the Taliban generate headlines, China's substantive dealings with them tend to slip under the radar. After the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban's fall from power, Beijing quietly maintained a relationship with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council based across the border in Pakistan. In a conversation, one former Chinese official claimed that besides Pakistan, China was the only country to continue this contact. Over the last 18 months, exchanges have taken place more regularly, and China has started to admit their existence in meetings with U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The same sources said that Taliban representatives have held meetings with Chinese officials both in Pakistan and in China. Although the possibility of active Chinese support for peace talks has been discussed, it appears the focus has been on a narrower set of Chinese objectives: as one Pakistani expert noted, "it has so far been about mitigating [Chinese] security concerns rather than reconciliation."

In China's dealings with the Taliban, the independence movement among China's Uighur Muslim minority has always been its biggest concern. In the late 1990s, Beijing worried that the Taliban government in Kabul was providing a haven for Uighur militants, who had fled Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang and set up training camps in Afghanistan. In meetings in December 2000 in Kandahar, the Taliban's reclusive leader Mohammed Omar assured the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin that the Taliban would not "allow any group to use its territory to conduct any such operations" against China. In exchange, Omar sought two things from China: formal political recognition and protection from U.N. sanctions.

Neither side delivered satisfactory results. The Taliban did not expel Uighur militants from its territory. Though it prohibited them from operating their own camps, it allowed them to embed with other militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. At the same time, China moderated its stance at the U.N. Security Council to abstain on sanctions that targeted the Taliban and established trade links that would help mitigate their impact, but it didn't use its veto power. Beijing deferred its decision on giving the Taliban diplomatic recognition, which Washington's reaction to the 9/11 attacks soon made moot anyway.

The two sides, however, realized they could do business with each other. The Taliban's then-ambassador to Pakistan described his Chinese counterpart in Islamabad in the late 1990s as "the only one to maintain a good relationship" with the Taliban. In fact, China was signing economic deals in Kabul the very day of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Since then, China has forged a good working relationship with the Karzai government, without ever becoming too closely identified with it by the insurgency. Today, China's priority remains ensuring that any territory under Taliban control won't function as a base for Uighur militant groups. The small remaining band of Uighur fighters -- perhaps as few as 40 men -- are primarily located in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, in remote territory under the influence of a commander with ties to both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. China has been seeking assurances that the sheltering of Uighurs will not take place on a larger scale in Afghanistan itself. It also wants its multi-billion dollar investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. Beijing's largest economic project, the Aynak copper mine, is in territory with a strong presence of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that is closely allied with the Taliban.

China's dealings with the Islamist insurgents also hedge against the risk that the Taliban might decide to view Chinese citizens, investments, or even mainland China itself as a legitimate target. Militants blamed China for the Pakistani government's 2007 decision to launch an assault on the Red Mosque, a pro-Taliban stronghold in Islamabad, and duly retaliated with a series of attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan. Beijing is also increasingly nervous about how Taliban-linked groups view Chinese policy in Xinjiang. The shooting of a Chinese woman in Peshawar in 2011 was the first (and only) occasion that a Pakistani Taliban spokesman pinned an attack on "revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers" in Xinjiang, the region where most Uighurs live. 

Nonetheless, sources in Pakistan who have talked to the militant commanders say that senior Taliban leaders are keen not to alienate Beijing -- they have enough enemies already. The Afghan Taliban continues to see the benefit of close ties with one of the few countries that can restrain their sometimes-overbearing Pakistani sponsors. As a result, according to Chinese sources who work closely with the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Taliban interlocutors have provided the same reassurances to China that they gave in the past: they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base of attacks and want to develop economic relations with the Chinese. But these sources also say that Chinese officials remain apprehensive. They doubt the Taliban's capacity and willingness to deliver on its promises, particularly on the matter of safe havens for Uighur militants, and they fear a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would destabilize Pakistan and the region. Beijing has therefore been increasingly keen to see a political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures a stable balance of power.

The United States shares this basic objective of a stable Afghanistan, and after years of pushing Beijing to increase its commitment there, U.S. officials told me they are happy that China has become more active in the region. Chinese officials have even mentioned to their U.S. counterparts the possibility of Beijing using its own contacts with the Taliban to help support reconciliation talks, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

So will Beijing play a greater role in the upcoming peace talks among Kabul, the Taliban, and the United States? Probably not. Despite tentative support from all three parties, Beijing has been deterred not only by its caution over involvement with a risky process but by Islamabad. Pakistan is clearly uncomfortable with its closest friend's presence in a policy area that Beijing was previously willing to outsource to them.

China's stance could prove useful for U.S. negotiators in Doha, however, if the talks move forward. While Beijing still treads carefully in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, it knows it holds the upper hand, and is willing to exert pressure when important Chinese interests are at stake. China prioritizes stability in Afghanistan over sustaining Pakistani influence in the region; sources in Beijing who follow discussions between the two sides say that officials have made this increasingly clear to Islamabad.

In the 1990s, China paid little attention as Afghanistan slid into civil war and the Taliban seized control of the country. Now, with greater interests at stake, it doesn't want to see the same story play out after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. If history were to repeat itself, however, there are no prizes for guessing which country would be the first to send a business delegation to Kandahar after the Taliban's return.

Jonathan S. Landay/MCT/MCT via Getty Images