As the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has unfolded over the past month, one of the most visceral aspects of the commentary in the international media has not been the trauma of the poor people who are pouring over the mined borders into Bangladesh. Rather, it has been our collective heartbreak in the West over the fall from grace of a beloved global icon: the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government, Aung San Suu Kyi.
As is often the case with infatuation, the cause of our heartbreak has less to do with the object of our affections, Suu Kyi herself, and more to do with our perception of her. Or rather, about the way in which we like to tell stories about people like her.
Here are the facts about Suu Kyi. She is the daughter of one of Burma’s post-independence founders. She is beautiful and articulate. She is Oxford-educated and speaks with a reassuring British received pronunciation twang. She has been an ardent and unwavering campaigner for democracy in her country throughout her life, and has made huge personal sacrifices for that campaign. She received a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, and at the time she received it, the Prize was fully deserved. So far, everything about Suu Kyi entirely justifies the way in which we have idolised her.
And it gets better. Suu Kyi has outlived the military juntas who kept her under house arrest for 15 years over a period of 21 years from 1989 to 2010. And after the military administration bungled the response to Hurricane Nargis, which devastated Myanmar in 2008, they finally had to relent and move the country on the path towards democracy. That shift culminated with the election to power of Aung San Suu Kyi, and her NLD party, in the country’s first free elections in decades, in late 2015. Suu Kyi is not just an icon for the struggle for democratic values in her country. She is an icon that has succeeded, and has brought about positive change in the country.
These are all the reasons why we want to love Aung San Suu Kyi. This is why we have put her on a pedestal for so long. And we like our tales of morals to be simple and forceful. So long as Suu Kyi was a symbol and an icon, it seemed churlish and petty to dwell on the fact that she, as an actual human being, has her own flaws and her own moral failures. What purpose would it have served to shine a light on those blemishes, while the character of Aung San Suu Kyi was telling the story of our aspirations for global democracy and human rights for us all by itself?
But Suu Kyi is no longer a campaigner. And thus she can no longer be just a symbol. Nor can she serve any longer as a stand-alone literary character embodying our hopes and dreams for global democracy in the pages of our liberal newspapers in the West. Now Suu Kyi is a political leader. She has power and she has the latitude to make choices. Those choices have consequences. And in the case of the Rohingya crisis, those consequences look like ethnic cleansing.
That stark disconnect between the symbol for Western values we thought Suu Kyi to be, and the reality of her rule in Myanmar is still something that baffles our understanding in Western media. The response to this contrast, especially as the Rohingya crisis continues to develop, seems to be going through the four stages of grief. Many of us are still at the stage of denial. Many articles have been published to explain how Suu Kyi does not actually have the power to stop the military abuses against the Rohingya in Rakhine state even if she wanted to, and that her hands are tied.
It is true that the military retains significant powers despite there being an elected civilian government in the country. And it is equally true that matters of international relations and internal security fall within the responsibility of the military. The military does have de jure authority over how it responds to the attacks of the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in Rakhine state.
But it is untrue and disingenuous to suggest that Suu Kyi has no power to change the course of events. She has most of the people of her country behind her, and she can take them just about anywhere. And both her and the military know that is a powerful consideration. She may not be able to, and should not dispute the need for the security forces to respond to the violent threat of ARSA. But she can and should dispute how that response involves the burning down of entire villages, the rape of women, the killings of children, the mining of paths leading across the border into Bangladesh, and the pushing half of the Rohingya population in Myanmar out of the country in the space of just one month.
However, many people who have known Suu Kyi for some time and have worked with her have come to believe that her decision to provide cover for the army goes much deeper than being a balancing act between a universalist humanitarian and pragmatic politician. She in fact, like many of the elite in Myanmar, shares many of the beliefs of the military leaders and actually supports their action.
Mark Farmaner, Director of UK Burma Campaign and a pioneer of the Free Aung San Suu Kyi Campaign met with her a number of times in Myanmar. He came to the conclusion quite quickly that “she doesn’t see Burma as a multi-ethnic multi-religious country but a Burma-Buddhist country with ethnic minorities.” In fact, in one discussion with her she complained how the non-Rohingya Muslims of Burma needed to integrate. When mark informed his Muslim Burmese friend of the conversation, he was all too familiar with such Buddhist supremacist language: “We are fully integrated in every way in every level of society and have been part of Burma for as long as the Buddhists. The only thing we haven’t done is change our religion, and the Buddhists never accept that.” Farmaner also does not believe her decision to provide cover for the army is a political calculation:
“She is not willing to speak out on any of the issues even the Kachin of the Shan, let alone the Rohingya. I don’t accept that she has made a political calculation on not speaking out for the Rohingya. Her friends are briefing western diplomats and foreign press that if she steps out of line the military are waiting to take back control. This is a myth. This entire system has been created by the military. It is working perfectly for them. Sanctions have been lifted, people are on their side and they are very popular. There is no way they will take back control. They can even engaged in ethnic cleansing and getting away with it.”
Former Australian MP and now academic specialising in Myanmar, Ronan Lee, was probably the first westerner to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi after her release from house arrest in 2010. He also had grave reservations on Aung San Suu Kyi after he probed a little deeper:
“We didn’t get ASSK so wrong. I published papers in 2014 saying that she had serious issues with the Rohingya. We chose to ignore them because we hoped she would live up to the Nobel Prize she received. I examined her demeanor, her speeches and her writings. I read the booklet where she said ‘We are proud Burmese and not kalaa’ (Kalaa is a derogatory term for darker skin people, like the Rohingya). In my mind she is a Burmese nationalist.”
People who know her personally and have worked with her on these kinds of issues in the past, were neither surprised nor heartbroken by Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya crisis. They were saddened to see that she has not tried to live up to her international image.
One could argue she was under extreme strain and isolation during house arrest and these views don’t reflect her current positions. But on her visit to the US this time last year, Daw Suu Kyi had breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden and leaders of congress. Amongst those in attendance was Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was so appalled at Aung San Suu Kyi’s dismissive attitude to human rights abuses and human trafficking that his office issued a very strong statement saying:
“While we certainly appreciate the work Aung San Suu Kyi has done to ensure a democratic transition in Burma, I am somewhat appalled by her dismissive reaction to concerns I raised this morning about the problem of human trafficking in her country,” said Corker. “After witnessing her lack of regard for Burma’s dismal track record on this issue, I plan to pay very close attention to her government’s efforts to prevent innocent human beings from being trafficked and sold into forced labor and sex slavery.”
Aung San Suu Kyi has not, over the past month, become a different person. She is the same person she has always been. She remains to pro-democracy leader and visionary she was when she received the Nobel Peace Prize. All that has changed is that now, we finally get to find out that her vision for democracy for her country never included the Rohingya. She may not have chosen to cleanse the Rohingya from the country herself, but she doesn’t terribly mind if that were to come to pass. She never would have minded.
This article originally appeared in Newsweek on September 22nd, 2019.