The Tragedy of Myanmar

The world has yet another crisis to contend with. In addition to the North Korean hydrogen bomb, the fraying of the Iranian nuclear accord and much more, now comes Myanmar.

Better known in the west as Burma, that far-off country has not made much claim on the attention of Americans in recent months. Myanmar does not have a nuclear weapons program to focus world attention, nor any natural disasters recently comparable to Hurricane Harvey. Unfortunately, the country has now furnished a man-made disaster to earn it headlines.

This week, tensions between the country’s ruling Buddhist majority and insurgents of the Rohingya Muslim minority exploded in violence that is shaking the entire region.

Several hundred have been killed by government security forces, and an estimated 120,000 of the Rohingya have fled from Rakhine state across the border into Bangladesh. Accusations, running from ethnic cleansing to full-fledged genocide, have attended these events, and the international community must face the task of helping to restore peace and stability.

It comes as a shock to many that such things are happening in Myanmar. It was only recently, in September 2016 in the White House, that President Barack Obama hosted fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose democracy movement had triumphed over the military dictatorship without resort to violence.

On that occasion, Mr. Obama announced the lifting of sanctions on her country. A new era of peace and prosperity appeared at hand after decades of struggle. It looked like the kind of happy ending the world is seldom able to enjoy.

Yet, even then, it was noted that the triumph of democracy over dictatorship had been only partial. Senior military officials did not pack up and go home to till the soil like the ancient Roman general Cincinnatus. They continued to occupy powerful positions in government and business, still hovering in the background, apparently ready to grab back their old powers if the civilians should falter.

In spite of that, Mr. Obama, with the approval of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, removed the sanctions that she had long supported as a means of keeping the military in line.

At that point she said: “We think that the time has now come to remove all the sanctions that hurt us economically, because our country is in a position to open up to those who are interested in taking part in our economic enterprises.”

It may be that she felt the opening up to foreign investment would not only boost the economy but would also gradually soften the military’s grip. Or, as some suggested, the generals were still strong enough to prevail upon her to go along with it, even against her better judgment.

Whatever the calculation of interests, the announcement was met with some alarm. A number of human rights groups objected that revoking sanctions was premature. As Mr. Obama himself acknowledged that day, the country still faced “significant challenges” despite democratic advances.

Last year, several Nobel laureates signed an open letter that “warned of the potential for genocide.” One of them, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani Muslim, blamed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi for the crisis and urged that her prize be taken away. This week, a columnist for the British newspaper the Guardian is promoting a petition to take away her Nobel Prize, which he says she no longer deserves.

The irony of the situation has been widely appreciated: Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi — all her life a paragon of nonviolence — herself being blamed for the brutal repression that afflicts Myanmar. She has been criticized for not doing more to protect the Rohingya, and for opposing a U.N. fact-finding mission to investigate violence in Rakhine state.

In all fairness, she has no actual authority over the army. Her title is not that of president or prime minister, but of state counsellor. Due to a technicality — she has two sons of British nationality — she cannot serve as president. As such, she cannot simply give orders to halt the army rampage in Rakhine.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation has always been a moral one — a courageous spokeswoman for peace and democracy. Her ability to rein in the situation will depend on her ability to persuade the perpetrators that their methods are wrong and ruinous.

Nevertheless, as the unofficial but universally recognized leader of Myanmar, she cannot escape taking at least some responsibility for what happens there.

Her statements in recent days have not been encouraging. She blamed “terrorists” for the turmoil and apparently sought to downplay the gravity of the situation with a reference to “fake news photographs” of people killed in massacres.

Responding to Turkish allegations of “genocide,” she claimed the government “had already started defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible and expressed that there should be no misinformation to create trouble between the two countries.”

How much good increased international pressure on Myanmar would do is hard to say. Perhaps if Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would take a vigorous stand against the ethnic cleansing, and the U.S. threatened renewed sanctions, the killings could be brought to a halt.

But whatever can be done must be done.