Voters in Myanmar gave Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy an extraordinary mandate in the November 2015 general elections to deepen the democratic transition, address longstanding ethnic conflicts and achieve economic prosperity. The big challenge now is: Can an opposition movement successfully navigate the challenges of governing, including building a workable relationship with the powerful military without tarnishing its democratic credentials and also provide some relief to the Rohingyas?
These are questions that require delving deeper into Aung San Suu Kyi’s background. The devil is in the details. Commonly known as “The Lady” and revered and respected for standing up to prolonged incarceration by the military junta, Suu Kyi is the youngest daughter of Aung San, Father of modern-day Myanmar — an architect of Burmese independence — founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces. She was born in Rangoon (modern Yangon), British Burma. Her father was assassinated by his political opponents when she was only two, a fact she has cashed on to acquire political mileage. Her mother compromised with the military junta and was posted as Burma’s ambassador to India. After graduating from the University of Delhi in 1964 and the University of Oxford in 1968, Suu Kyi worked at the United Nations for three years. She married Michael Aris in 1972, and gave birth to two children. She returned to Burma in 1988 to attend to her ailing mother but rose to prominence in the1988 uprisings and became the General Secretary of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD). In the 1990 elections, the NLD won 81% of the seats in parliament, but the results were nullified, as the military refused to hand over power. She had, however, already been detained and was under house arrest before the elections. She remained under arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010.
Her party boycotted the 2010 elections, resulting in a decisive victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. In the 2015 elections, her party won a landslide victory, taking 86% of the seats in the Assembly of the Union — well more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to ensure that its preferred candidates were elected President and Second Vice President in the presidential electoral college. Although she was prohibited from becoming the President due to a clause in the constitution — her late husband and her children are foreign citizens — she assumed the newly created role of State Counselor, a role akin to a prime minister or a head of government.
Aung San Suu Kyi has received numerous international honours, including the Rafto Prize, Sakharov Prize, Nobel Peace Prize, Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Order of Australia, US Congressional Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is an honorary citizen of many countries, including Canada and was an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders.
Despite her riding the crest of popularity, Aung San Suu Kyi has been censured by international human rights activists for her silence on the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Renowned activist in the labour, socialist and social movements (including antiwar, Palestinian solidarity, civil, women’s, immigrant, and disability rights) Mary Scully, in her scathing op-ed ‘The Legend of Aung San Suu Kyi’ points out that “there has been a dramatic shift in media coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi since 2012, when she travelled to Oslo to pick up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize as an icon of human rights of almost mythic stature. In her acceptance speech, she spoke of her Buddhist commitment to non-violence, of solidarity with those suffering injustice, of the corrupting influence of fear in standing against repression and the power of human kindness. It was quite a performance – so stirring, that as she continued travelling in Europe and the US to pick up other human rights awards, few thought to ask her about the genocidal violence against the Rohingya Muslims going on at the same time in Myanmar.”
News about the apartheid conditions and squalid concentration camps in Arakan for the Rohingya displaced by the 2012 violence, brought in a reality check and prompted analysts to question why Suu Kyi, the paragon of human rights, compassion and courage, was mum about the persecution of the Rohingya? When asked about it, Suu Kyi would speak in evasive abstractions about the “rule of law” to suggest lawless rampaging among the Rohingya.
In an interview with the BBC's Mishal Husain, Suu Kyi refused to condemn violence against the Rohingya and denied that Muslims in Myanmar have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, insisting that the tensions were due to a "climate of fear" caused by
"a worldwide perception that global Muslim power is very great."
According to Peter Popham, author of the book ‘The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom’, commenting in the aftermath of the interview, she said she expressed anger at being interviewed by a Muslim. Husain had challenged Suu Kyi that almost all of the impact of violence was against the Rohingya, in response to Suu Kyi's claim that violence was happening on both sides. Peter Popham described her position on the issue as one of purposeful ambiguity for political gain.
In 2016, Suu Kyi was accused of failing to protect Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims during the 2016-17 persecution. According to The Independent of November 25, 2016, state crime experts from Queen Mary University of London warned that Suu Kyi is "legitimizing genocide" in Myanmar.
Critics of the ilk of Mary Scully have been quite abrasive in their censure of “The Lady.” After becoming Myanmar’s de facto head of state in March 2016, Suu Kyi’s conduct depicts that the military was still running the country but with the human rights and democratic veneer she provided, especially through setting up spurious investigative commissions like the Kofi Annan whitewash commission. Suu Kyi has exposed her true self by fronting for the 2016 offensive against the Rohingya which has caused nearly 70,000 to flee to Bangladesh with gruesome reports of soldiers torching homes, extrajudicial executions, mass rapes and torture, forced disappearance and mass incarceration. Incredulity about her silence has finally turned to a chorus of accusations of collusion with the military. Suu Kyi’s popularity appears to be waning.
Political watchers are seeking a rationale for Suu Kyi’s denial of the extreme genocide which has been condemned by Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and seven Nobel Peace Laureates, the UN, EU, human rights organizations and prestigious university researchers. There have been callous observations that her prestige has mostly been built on fabrications, family lineage and knowing the right people. She had been out of the country for schooling and work since the age of 15 in 1960, first living in India with her widowed mother who was a diplomat for the military junta, then to the US for schooling and work, to England where she married and had two sons, to Bhutan where her husband tutored the feudal rulers, and then back to England.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a survivor and some of the compromises she has made may have been to ensure her own survival. The military still wields enormous influence within the government. Under the constitution, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, which has special emergency powers written into the constitution that give it the right to take control of the country for vague and unspecified reasons of “national security” and “national unity.”
Now that she is in a position of relative political strength, she may be able to relieve her conscience by aiding and abetting the downtrodden. It may take time and while human rights activists may see her losing the opportunity of bringing the Rohingya out of their misery but hopefully she is consolidating her own position only to help others. Meanwhile she is losing her credibility as a true democrat. She heads Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since 1962. She won that election through a loathsome compromise with the military junta and by supporting their neoliberal policies bringing in foreign investment and mining projects at the expense of farmers and rural workers. Some of those farmers and villagers were way ahead of the rest of the world in understanding her betrayals when they booed her out of town for saying the expropriations of their lands and destruction of the environment were "for the greater good.
The writer is a practising journalist. He contributes to the print media, conducts a TV show and produces documentaries..