Myanmar’s NLD has a chance to redeem itself in exile
Before the 2021 coup in Myanmar, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, was a willing part of a genocidal regime. Its leaders supported and defended the generals and the armed forces who terrorized the Rohingya minority and were responsible for a genocidal campaign against them.
When atrocities by the army were reported by the international press, NLD leaders denied them. When a legal case was brought by Gambia against the regime at the International Court of Justice, Suu Kyi traveled to the Hague to minimize claims of war crimes and genocide, and to say that if any did occur, they must be dealt with — by which she meant dismissed — within Myanmar itself.
This was a dark time, and represented the perversion of an organization that, for 20 years in opposition and hiding, had attracted global sympathy and support. The NLD repudiated these hopes when it entered government.
But times do change. Now the NLD is in opposition and in exile again. Its leaders are in prison awaiting trial. As the army rampages through Myanmar, killing protesters and terrorizing villages, NLD veterans have found themselves joining with minority militias and previously banned political parties under the umbrella of the exiled National Unity Government and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces. The necessities of conflict have forced compromises.
Within months of being overthrown, the National Unity Government released a statement recanting its parties’ positions in power. It accepted the truth of the genocide against the Rohingya, and made claims that it would begin, if returned to power, to redress the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya and others in Rakhine state.
This is to be welcomed, if guardedly. In power, the inability and unwillingness of NLD leaders to accept the truth of the genocide was both criminal and galling.
If, in hiding, compromises with other opposition forces mean accepting the truth of recent events, so much the better. It remains to be seen whether this is a gesture born of necessity — one armed group must reconcile with others if it is to fight alongside them — or if it signals a true change in policy, a rejection of the military’s justification of genocide and pattern of genocidal behavior.
In other theaters, the NLD attempts to survive internationally.
Last year, after the coup, the NLD leadership wasted no time in attempting to make contact with China, the primary international patron of the military regime, and a friend when the party was in the halls of power.
Later efforts concentrated on diplomatic advocacy in Europe, where, the NLD hoped, it could rekindle some of the magic of Suu Kyi’s exile in convincing the democracies to see its activities as worthy of international support and admiration.
This month, it has gone a step further and opened an office in Canberra, the Australian capital, which it is calling an embassy of the legitimate government of Myanmar. All of these things are useful tools in affecting global opinion, and attempting to use the levers of diplomacy to prevent the world accepting the coup and its effects without challenge.
It is politically smart of the NLD to do this, and it can be politically astute for foreign democracies to play along — with stringent conditions of their own.
The democracies must grill the NLD on their commitment to accepting the reality of the Rohingya genocide, and to doing whatever is possible to end it and to make up for it within Myanmar. They must secure real, testable promises from NLD leaders that, if they are returned to power, they will never again give in to the worst elements within the military — and will never sanction military aggression against ethnic minorities, or whitewash previous instances of violence.
The world must make sure that any support for an NLD government in exile is built on more than good intentions and flawed assumptions of what a better future might bring.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
The world must make it clear, and be convinced to its own satisfaction, that the genocide can never again occur, and that the temporary alliances of wartime will survive if the military is defeated.
Only then can the NLD prove that it has taken the chance exile has offered to redeem itself from the stain of genocide, which is hard to remove with words.
The world was taken in once by an NLD leader with a charismatic pitch and an appealing vision. It must make sure that any support for an NLD government in exile is built on more than good intentions and flawed assumptions of what a better future might bring.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is the director of special initiatives at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington and author of ‘The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide’ (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim