Why has Aung San Suu Kyi done nothing?

suukyi
(Credit: Aung Shine Oo/AP)

The horror of ethnic cleansing and mass flight continues unabated in Myanmar. This week, just as last week (and the week before that), Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to act.

For many of us, Suu Kyi’s failure to resist the brutal military campaign against the Rohingya is baffling. How could the former democratic activist neglect to stop or even speak out against such unpardonable violations of human rights? Since Suu Kyi has said so little, much is left open to interpretation.

In a column Monday, Martin Regg Cohn attempted some of that interpretation. He noted personal traits that he saw as foreshadowing Suu Kyi’s actions this year, but only briefly touched on the political calculation that led Suu Kyi to choose inaction over action. Why did she make that choice?

Suu Kyi’s most basic decision was between action and inaction, confrontation and passivity. Her task, then, was to weigh the various risks and rewards of both action and inaction, then determine which option was more attractive.

It’s clear that Suu Kyi has decided that action is far more risky than rewarding. Suu Kyi likely believes that if she attempted to stop the violence, or even spoke out against it, the backlash from Buddhist extremists in Myanmar would bring down her government — leading to renewed military control.

The potential benefits of successful action would be to stop the violence itself, potentially weaken the military, and rehabilitate Suu Kyi’s international reputation.

But the decisive factor in any choice is probability of success. And if confrontation with the military is unlikely to go well for the civilian government — as Suu Kyi likely believes —  then action becomes difficult to justify. With regime survival in question, most risks are simply too much to consider, even with significant rewards.

If action is a dangerous choice, then what about inaction?

The negative consequences of doing nothing are clear: they are playing out before our eyes. For the international community, Suu Kyi has become a fallen angel. Moreover, the military has shown that it can operate autonomously, strengthening it at least in the short-term. Most importantly, there are now hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing destroyed homes.

The rewards of inaction are less easy to see, and it’s unclear that Suu Kyi has actually taken them into account. If she did, it would significantly change how the international community should view her decision. While seeing action as impossibly risky is rational, if cowardly, finding and pursuing a silver lining in ethnic cleansing is evil.

The rewards of inaction exist only in the very long-term. In that timeframe, a ruthless version of Suu Kyi might consider that Myanmar could be more stable, peaceful and easy to govern if it became a mono-ethnic, single-faith state. Without significant religious and ethnic tensions between sections of Myanmar’s population, Suu Kyi could go about slowly building up Myanmar’s civil society and strengthening civilian control.

The potential long-term weakening effect on the military would be a decisive reward of inaction. Along with campaigns in the country’s eastern states, the conflict with the Rohingya continues to provide the armed forces with a raison d’être — and a reason for Myanmar citizens to keep tolerating the generals. Without that conflict, the armed forces would face pressure to give up some of its influence.

Suu Kyi could be betting that in the long-term, the rewards of inaction might actually outweigh its current horrifying effects.

To sum up, the choice of action has high risks, high rewards and a low chance of success. The consequences of inaction, meanwhile, are severely harmful, though it carries uncertain benefits in the long-term. Taking this reasoning into account, Suu Kyi has chosen inaction.

Because of Suu Kyi’s near-silence on the issue, the debate as to why she made that choice must play out in the international community. Its resolution will help determine the world’s response to the situation. Is it that the chance of successful action is simply too low and the risks too high? Or do the potential rewards of inaction play a role in Suu Kyi’s thinking?

If action is simply too dangerous, the international community must act to change the calculus. It can seek to curb the military and strengthen the civilian government. This is immediately possible through sanctions targeted at the armed forces’ business ties. Arms embargoes, more sanctions and Security Council action could be the next steps.

But if Suu Kyi has chosen inaction because of its possible merits, then she cannot be allowed to benefit from any international response. The civilian government must be empowered, but Suu Kyi must go.

A leader that is willing to sacrifice over a million of her own people’s lives, in a bet that it will increase her domestic power, does not deserve the world’s admiration or support. She deserves its condemnation.

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