Before coming to power in a landslide victory for her party, the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi was widely perceived as the embodiment of hope, a brave symbol of defiance against the Myanmar military dictatorship and a heroine of the human rights community. It is a perception that has sadly collapsed, having foundered on the treatment of the country’s Muslim Rohingya population, who make up just 4 percent of the country’s 53 million population.
This week, Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hliang have convened a five-day conference in Naypyidaw, the country’s administrative capital, meeting with representatives of the country’s long-oppressed ethnic minorities in an effort to reach a lasting peace. The off-delayed 21st Century Panglong Conference is given little prospect of success by analysts. But for the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, the chances for success are even less.
Among the Oxford-educated Suu Kyi’s many honors is the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, having spent 15 of her 21 years in the country under house arrest. In her 2012 acceptance speech more than 20 years after being awarded the prize, Suu Kyi reaffirmed her values. She spoke about creating “a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless” and “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.”
That same year, however, saw an outbreak of communal violence in Myanmar that resulted in the displacement of more than 100,000 Rohingya people who were forced into makeshift refugee camps. At least 200 people were killed in clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine state, a territory of 3.1 million people on Myanmar’s west coast.
Although Muslims have been in Myanmar since at least the 9th century, their numbers increased markedly during British imperial rule. Nonetheless, the majority Buddhists, who make up 90 percent of the country’s population regard them as interlopers. The violent blow-up generated by ethnic differences has largely discredited the country’s heralded transition to democracy, which began in 2010.
As the leader of the opposition at the time, Suu Kyi at first deflected the blame and responsibility to the government, claiming that the crisis was “the result of our sufferings under a dictatorial regime” which in turn created a “climate of mistrust.” Once in power as State Councillor, the equivalent of Prime Minister, she pledged to “abide by our commitment to human rights and democratic values.”
Fast forward six years, the crisis shows no sign of abating. In fact, it escalated further when government troops launched a massive security operation in response to coordinated attacks in October 2106 by the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, resulting in the deaths of nine police. A second attack occurred in August 2017, with more than 30 onslaughts against police posts in northern Rakhine state.
Since the onset of the crisis, outside observers have continued to document numerous mass atrocities including widespread killings, torture and rape committed by Myanmar’s army and other state security forces. As widely reported, more than 717,000 people have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017. Zeid Raad Al Hussein, the UN Human rights chief, has called the security operation in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Having joined the government, Suu Kyi could no longer deflect the blame and responsibility. Unfortunately, her response has not been any more commendable. She has repeatedly failed to speak out against the violence inflicted on the Rohingya or address the allegation of ethnic cleansing, insisting that the crisis was instigated by “terrorists” and distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation” – something her government has bizarrely continued to maintain by obstructing independent investigations into the crisis.
Barring the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar from entering the country, the government has offered a further indication that whatever is being concealed in the Rakhine state must be something terrible.
Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn the violence or attempt to lead her government away from it has made her the target of worldwide criticism as her country’s military wages its campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Her defenders argue that while she makes the majority of important decisions, the military retains control of three crucial ministries – home affairs, defense and border affairs – and is hence the real power in northern Rakhine state and along the border with Bangladesh. There is therefore an argument that Suu Kyi is in fact powerless – that she is not in charge of decisions capable of alleviating the suffering of Rohingya or that she cannot do so without risking the stability of the whole country. While that argument is popular among her supporters, it doesn’t explain her failure to at least speak up for the Rohingya.
But it is more likely that the world got Suu Kyi wrong from the beginning, that she was never really truly a political saint. Western leaders have a tendency to champion individuals – often activists who have made high-profile heroic sacrifices – as one-stop solutions to the problems of dictatorship or shaky new democracy. Then, in their zeal to find simple solutions to complex situations, they overlook their champions’ flaws, fail to see the fundamental challenges of being in power and assume that countries are the products of their leaders - when it is almost always the other way around.
Looking back, there were early signs that Suu Kyi might not after all be a determinedly unquestioned champion of human rights. In a 2013 interview with the BBC, for instance, she refused to acknowledge the rising violence directed at the Rohingya and pointed out that Buddhists had also been displaced from their homes and similarly subject to violence.
Then she went on to claim that Myanmar as a whole – as do many other parts of the world – live in fear of “global Muslim power.” Instead of raising eyebrows, this Islamophobic remark went largely unnoticed, with Western leaders continuing to embrace her advancement.
Leaving aside her more recent effort to consolidate and centralize her authority – she also serves as foreign minister and the chair of various committees – it should still be reasonably clear that the world might have really got her wrong from the beginning. A champion of human rights and democracy could not have possibly made such an Islamophobic remark.
Andrew Selth, a professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, sums up the issue very neatly when he writes: “If Suu Kyi had so far to fall, it is because the international community raised her so high.”
Napat Rungsrithananaon is an intern at Free the Slaves.