A picture full of questions marks that are in red, yellow, blue, and green.

The Question Mark Over Aung San Suu Kyi

Graphic: Sophie Bear

She was the darling of the West. The lone voice of freedom in a country isolated from the world for over 60 years. Aung San Suu Kyi seemed, for a remarkably long time, to be the woman who could save Myanmar from the strife that had consumed it since independence in 1948. When she finally took on the role of ‘State Counsellor’ (akin to the President) in 2015, the world looked on hopefully. A woman who had tackled so many obstacles on her ascent was surely to bring peace to the troubled nation.

As of January 2018, nearly 690,000 of the minority Rohingya population have left Myanmar for neighbouring Bangladesh. They are fleeing from a wave of unprecedented violence; the BBC reports some 288 villages have been either somewhat or totally razed. Human rights groups report mass sexual violence and routine massacre. The United Nations has described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

International journalists and organisations struggle to get visas and have their excursions into the Rohingya Rakhine State closely monitored. On a domestic level, state propaganda pitches the crisis as a terrorist incursion and refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing, often in truly horrifying ways. In September 2017, Rakhine’s Minister for Border Affairs denied mass rape on the grounds that Rohingya women weren’t attractive. International media gets most of its information from satellite images showing smouldering villages and the testimonies of refugees in Bangladesh.  

In the face of all of this, Aung San Suu Kyi stays silent. She has remained impassive as furious voices challenge her, call for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked and remove her from lists of influential women. She, in turn, has called the international reaction a ‘huge iceberg of misinformation’, even refusing to use the word ‘Rohingya’. What happened to Myanmar’s champion of Freedom?

The West loved Aung San Suu Kyi because she was determined. She was almost regal in her support for democratisation and her love of her country. She was patient. She spent fifteen of twenty-one years under house arrest. She made the sufficient sacrifices to be a hero, only seeing her husband five times between 1989 and his death in 1999. Even when Suu Kyi was released, the Myanmar Constitution was pitted against her, the role of President not to be given to someone who was a widow or the mother of foreigners. So she created her own role as she had created her own rules for 21 years.

The crystallisation of Aung San Suu Kyi as a concept occurred during a time of symbolic heroes and freedom movements. Writing in 2017 for The New Yorker, Hannah Beech likens Aung San Suu Kyi to the icons of late ‘80s- Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela. As democracies were born in Europe, here was a woman attempting the same thing in a country far removed from Berlin Wall. How has she so utterly failed the Rohingya population?

The thorn in Myanmar’s side is the powerful military, whose dictatorship was only dismantled in 2011. The civilian government and military form an uneasy alliance, but it is the military that is in charge of the crackdown in Rakhine. This same military held Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years. Perhaps then, Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence is mandated, and she fears they will rescind democracy as quickly as they allowed it. It could be a strategic calculation that to save Myanmar’s teetering democracy, she must turn a blind eye to the genocide of an entire ethnic group.

In a similar vein, Suu Kyi is perhaps fearful of alienating her power base. Hatred of the Rohingya population is systemic in Myanmar. They are considered illegal ‘Bengali Muslim’ immigrants by many and spent much of the military junta era having their rights slowly eroded, culminating in the loss of citizenship rights in 1982. Perhaps Suu Kyi, as a member of the majority Bamar ethnic group, shares the anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been serially mislabelled. She was thrown into the role of a human rights icon almost by accident, having only returned to Myanmar in 1988 to care for her mother. She was in part asked to head the new National Democratic League (NLD) because her name added some credibility, as her father Aung San was the architect of independence. She had never experienced the reality of Myanmar’s years of turbulence. Her concept of freedom for Myanmar always featured her at the helm; in too many people’s eyes it was synonymous with freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi. She was careful in choosing her words. She demanded liberty and equality, but there was barely a mention on how to implement it, let alone a coherent policy on Rohingya discrimination. Pragmatic politician she may be, and may always have been, but human rights icon she is not. Whether by misunderstanding or deliberate misdirection, she had us duped.

Vaclav Havel once warned Barack Obama of “perils of limitless hope being projected onto a leader.” Limitless hope was thrown on Aung San Suu Kyi in abundance, inflating her until she was ripe for disappointment. Aung San Suu Kyi can’t or won’t save the Rohingya, and we cannot continue waiting for her grand resolution. It isn’t coming.