Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s central European tour made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Following their meeting in Budapest, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán released a statement saying that they “highlighted that one of the greatest challenges at present for both countries and their respective regions – Southeast Asia and Europe – is migration”.
“They noted that both regions have seen the emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”
Orbán also “stressed that Hungary rejects attempts at the ‘export of democracy’ and the approach of bureaucrats in Brussels and elsewhere in the West, who seek to conflate unrelated issues such as economic cooperation and internal political questions”.
The statement was, not surprisingly, reported as a meeting of minds between the far-right Orbán and the state counsellor, whose government has been widely condemned for its response to the Rohingya crisis. The meeting was seen as an indication of how far the Nobel laureate’s star has fallen.
The statement gained traction in the press because it fit the prevailing narrative about Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar. Myanmar’s state media did not mention any exchange about Muslims, immigration or Brussels bureaucrats, but journalists covering Myanmar will be aware that she has previously made remarks along these lines during meetings with diplomats and foreign dignitaries. It would not be unusual or out of character. And if the government expected a visit to Hungary to be seen in any other light, it was incredibly naïve.
There is a bigger picture here. The targeting of Rohingya in Rakhine State since August 2017 that prompted more than 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh and the government’s stubborn denial that atrocities were committed have badly damaged its relations with many countries.
Myanmar is now isolated. There is, after all, a reason why Aung San Suu Kyi was in Hungary, and not the United Kingdom or France. On the same trip Aung San Suu Kyi also met Czech Republic President Miloš Zeman, another far-right leader who has been outspoken about Islam and immigration, and is close to Russia and China.
But Myanmar’s isolation extends beyond Western countries, or members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. When a resolution on the human rights situation was put forward at the United Nations in March, it was cosponsored by 103 countries and endorsed by 142. Only 10 voted against it.
Myanmar’s response has not been to address the underlying causes of the violence and deprivation in Rakhine State, to ensure access to citizenship and human rights for all, or to seek genuine accountability for crimes committed against the state’s Muslim community.
Instead, it has been to expand its pool of potential allies and deepen relationships with sympathetic partners so it can more effectively “fight back” against the international community’s allegations.
Hungary and the Czech Republic, for instance, can provide support for Myanmar retaining trade privileges under the European Union’s Everything But Arms programme, which the EU Commission is reviewing because of concerns over Myanmar’s human rights record.
It is a strategy right out of the old junta’s playbook and put into action by foreign service veterans such as current Minister for the State Counsellor’s Office U Kyaw Tint Swe and Minister for International Cooperation U Kyaw Tin.
Kyaw Tin has been explicit about this. In May, he told the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw that the cabinet had decided to establish diplomatic ties with three African nations – Benin, Togo and the Republic of the Congo – because “they cast neutral votes on Myanmar at the UN.” He reasoned, “We can provide each other with support in the international arena.”
(At least, we think it was Republic of the Congo – in a subsequent report, state media referred to establishing relations with the much larger Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
Kyaw Tin also revealed to the hluttaw that earlier this year the government spent more than US$500,000 in emergency funds to open an embassy in Havana, Cuba, which was one of the 10 countries that voted against the March resolution at the UN.
At the same time, Myanmar has been unnecessarily antagonising one of its most important international partners, Bangladesh. Kyaw Tint Swe’s unhelpful comments in Tokyo in which he said Bangladesh was “not cooperating” on repatriation have incensed Dhaka, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is likely to raise the issue on an upcoming visit to China.
Cosying up to a handful of sympathetic countries is not an effective response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Rather than blame others, Myanmar should focus on improving conditions in Rakhine so that safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation can begin.