For years, she was the epitome of the peaceful protester, steadfast in her devotion to democracy in her homeland of Myanmar through nonviolent means.
Aung San Suu Kyi was lauded on the global stage, awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and praised for her refusal to incite violence while under house arrest for 15 years after winning a presidential election the ruling military refused to accept.
Now, protesters around the region are torching effigies of the democracy icon. They are furious at her failure to act while Myanmar’s military lays waste to land held by the minority Rohingya Muslims, shooting civilians and sparking a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people who have been denied citizenship in the Buddhist-dominated country.
“These are mass killings and they’re taking place right now and Aung San Suu Kyi’s office is not only doing nothing to stop it — in some ways they’re throwing fuel on the fire,” said Matthew Smith, founder of human rights groups Fortify Rights, who was speaking from Kutupalong Refugee camp in Bangladesh, where many Rohingya have fled.
While it is the country’s military that has cracked down on the Rohingya in this latest spasm of violence, Suu Kyi is considered the country’s de facto leader. Her official post is State Counsellor and she is said to be the President’s confidante.
Moral face of Myanmar
Her father, Gen. Aung San, is revered as the country’s founder after it gained independence from the British in 1948. And as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for being “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless,” the expectation and pressure she faces to be the moral face of Myanmar is undeniable.
Recent Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai has called on her fellow laureate to condemn the “tragic and shameful treatment” of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. At least six other Nobel laureates have publicly urged her to defend and protect the Rohingya. “It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country,” said 85-year old Archibishop Desmond Tutu in his appeal to Suu Kyi. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Suu Kyi has ostensibly made it her life’s work to fight for human rights and democracy, which has made her silence over the Rohingya crisis so grating for her supporters to see. But even before the most recent developments, Suu Kyi had displayed a disconcerting sensibility regarding Muslims in Myanmar.
Her attitude toward some of the ethnic groups which make up Myanmar’s population was clear for anyone to see over years of media interviews.
In a 2013 television interview with BBC News, she disputed the characterization of the violence being perpetrated against the Rohingya at the time as ethnic cleansing. She was criticized then, too, for not standing up for the persecuted minority, who were being kept in internment camps while Buddhist nationalists and firebrand monks spread anti-Muslim sentiment across the country.
“This is what the world needs to understand, that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well,” she said. When journalist Mishal Husain argued that the violence had inordinately affected Muslims and caused tens of thousands to flee, Suu Kyi didn’t mention Muslims at all in her answer.
“I think there are many many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons and there are many Buddhists who are in refugee camps. This is the result of our sufferings. I think if you live under a dictatorship for many years, people don’t learn to trust one another.”
According to a book published later, Suu Kyi reportedly emerged from the interview remarking: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”
Just a politician
Those who continue to defend Suu Kyi argue that even with the extremely influential post she now holds, the Nobel laureate and her civilian partners in government don’t control the military and. therefore. cannot intervene in its campaigns, including the fighting raging in Rakhine State.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said Suu Kyi “faces huge challenges modernizing her country,” and that it was “vital that she receives the support of the Burmese military, and that her attempts at peacemaking are not frustrated,” referring to Myanmar by its colonial-era name of Burma.
“She and all in Burma have our full support in this,” Johnson said in early September.
In 2011, when Suu Kyi was censured for her unwillingness to criticize the military, her backers in the West argued that she couldn’t have actually done very much since she was a member of the opposition and that speaking out might have undone any chance she might have had to pursue political power, something she and her party were focused on at the time. Coming down on the military in any way would have been a backward step for Myanmar’s progress, they contended.
But in some Western corners at least, the tide may be turning. On September 1, the Washington Post Editorial Board pondered whether it was “too much to ask her to summon the inspiration to lead Burma away from the increasingly bitter and violent conflict with the Rohingya?”
“She might want to reread her Nobel text,” the board remarked, pointing to her words that summoned an original aim “to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless … a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.” The Board concluded: “This is not the world of the Rohingya in today’s Burma.”
In an interview earlier this year with the BBC, reporter Fergal Keane asked Suu Kyi whether she thought that people in the West had misjudged or mischaracterized her, “expecting you to be this sort of amalgam of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, for example, and actually maybe you’re closer in your determination and steeliness to someone like [former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher?”
“Well no,” Suu Kyi answered. “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no, but on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa, either. I have never said that I was. Mahatma Gandhi, actually, was a very astute politician.”