Foreword. So, the much hailed much anticipated Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar is increasingly being labeled a heartless tyrant. It’s an uneasy feeling: describing as ‘tyrant’ a petite, frail, Buddhist woman with a kind face and a subtle sense of style. Who can deny that she is attractive, graceful and poignant? And so photogenic too!
1. A Grim Fairytale. Suu Kyi’s life is straight out of a fairytale. Her father father ‘General’ Aung San was a revolutionary, founder of the Communist Party, leader of decolonization a charismatic patriarch in Burmese public life. The general made that much-fancied shift from dissident revolutionary to defender of the realm, only to be assassinated a mere 6 months before Burmese independence. It was into this quasi-royal family that Suu Kyi was born, always destined to become a princess. With a life filled with dramatic plot-twists, conflict, heartbreak and romance, she would emerge as a ‘democracy dissident’. In fact, Suu Kyi’s life has been so admirable, inspirational and documented that it is possible to depict it with a collage.
After the good general was assassinated, Suu Kyi lived under house arrest, escaped, lived in India, attended Oxford University, fell in love, married and became a mother. She returned to Burma in 1988 and was instantly thrust between the ‘rock’ of popular protests and the ‘hard-place’ of an entrenched military junta.
Dubbed the “Aunt of Burma,” Suu Kyi – like neighboring Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – is the daughter of a man who led the country’s charge for freedom and self-rule, only to be assassinated later by political rivals (they both returned to their countries after the mid-1980s). Both are avowed disciples of their respective fathers, entrusted by the People to continue the good fight and struggling with divisive forces.
After the 8888 Uprising, Suu Kyi triumphed in the election, but was once again placed under house arrest. This sprang her into global fame as a resilient icon, imprisoned in a lonely tower in a faraway, inaccessible kingdom. Her story was aggressively marketed by Freedom Now, a DC-based nonprofit with robust contacts at the UN. Soon, Kyi began to transcend political categories and approached iconic status. Consider this HuffPost description, “During periods of confinement, Ms. Suu Kyi busied herself studying and exercising. She meditated, worked on her French and Japanese language skills, and relaxed by playing Bach on the piano.”
Next to global darling Mandela, Suu Kyi was soon heralded as the most grievously-wronged and admired political prisoner on the planet. The momentum of global opinion in her favor culminated with Suu Kyi’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Other laurels showered on Suu Kyi include the Congressional Gold Medal (highest civilian honor, USA), the Sakharov Prize, International Simón Bolívar Prize, By today’s standards, her adulation could be described as Malala-esque.
Vijayan (2013) writes, “Our inherent consumerism prefers narratives that create, icons and idols. It is easier to grant sainthood or crucify, it is harder to engage in substantive conversations. Burma’s current Human Right crisis, ethnic peace making and democratic opportunities, lie beyond the opposition leaders maneuvering.”
2. Trouble in Paradise. The fairytale stumbled as Myanmar’s systemic discrimination and atrocities against its Muslim Rohingya population began to surface.
The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar might disagree with the dewy-eyed assessment of the five-member Nobel Committee. And with Gordon Brown, too, who called Suu Kyi “the world’s most renowned and courageous prisoner of conscience”.” Hasan (2015)
Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, have been left stateless and disenfranchised by the Burmese government. Of the 1.3 million, more than 100,000 Rohingya have been forced into displacement camps since violence broke out between them and Rakhinese Buddhists in 2012. Dubbed the ‘Boat People‘, thousands of fleeing Rohingya have been stranded at sea or turned away from neighboring countries.
Accused of being immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship and rights. Those who remain, continue to face “severe restrictions on their movement, employment and access to education and healthcare, as well as a discriminatory law imposing a “two child” limit on Rohingya families in their home state of Rakhine.” The general attitude is succinctly captured by Buddhist protester’s t-shirts which said, “Boat people are not Myanmar — Myanmar should not take the blame for boat people problem.”
“The thousands of lives at risk should be the immediate priority, but the root causes of this crisis must also be addressed. The fact that thousands of Rohingya prefer a dangerous boat journey they may not survive to staying in Myanmar speaks volumes about the conditions they face there,” observes Kate Schuetze of Amnesty International.
Aung San Suu Kyi urged reporters not to “exaggerate” the problems of the country, in response to a question about Rohingya, the country’s persecuted Muslim minority living in western Rakhine state. This is symptomatic of her failure to adequately condemn the atrocities committed against the Muslim minority.
Hasan (2015) said of Suu Kyi, that her silence is inexcusable. “Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression of her fellow countrymen and women, not to mention the violence meted out to them by Buddhist extremists inspired by the monk Ashin Wirathu (aka “The Burmese Bin Laden”), makes her part of the problem, not the solution.”
One can argue that Suu Kyi herself is not inciting violence. But there is ample evidence that she has not definitively acknowledged the widespread prevalence of discrimination and xenophobic violence. Professor Penny Green argues, her unprecedented moral and political capital places on her the onus of using such capital for the Greater Good. This ‘Greater Good’ cannot exclude the Rohingya minority, just because they are of a different ethnicity and worship a different God. Green writes, “In a genocide silence is complicity, and so it is with Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s desperate Rohingya community.”
3. The Climax. On November 08, 2015, Suu Kyi cast her vote in the first democratic elections in Myanmar in 25 years. It should be an easy victory for her party and a historic triumph for democracy in the troubled region.
Sadly, the Rohingya people were not allowed to vote in this historic election. In a Buddhist majority country, the ethnic group has been stripped of rights, representation and voice. That is, by any measure, a sad, perverted and dangerous way to start a “democratic journey”. In fact, it is a grievous injustice to call this a ‘democratic’ election.
If we look beyond her triumphs, Suu Kyi’s life has been tragic. Myanmar has taken her father, her childhood, her husband and her very freedom. She has suffered enormous personal sacrifices to do what she thought her duty. If anyone can understand the plight of the Rohingya, it should be she. Kyi has the opportunity to achieve a befitting ending to her fairytale journey. If Suu Kyi’s true intention is Democracy and Equality, she will work to change the tide of religion-based discrimination and persecution. If she fails to overcome her own bigotry, then all the admiration and will have been misplaced, and in vain.
Vijayan, S., Brook, M. (2013). When saints rule? Aung San Suu Kyi and the politics of sainthood. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/suchitra-vijayan/when-saints-rule-aung-san_b_4252104.html
Holmes, O. (2015). Suu Kyi plans Myanmar reconciliation government with role "above president". The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/05/suu-kyi-plans-myanmar-reconciliation-government-with-role-above-president
Hasan, M. (2015). Aung San Suu Kyi's inexcusable silence. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/05/aung-san-suu-kyi-inexcusable-silence-150524085430576.html
Schatz, J. (2015). In Myanmar, attacking the Rohingya is good politics. Al Jazeera, America. Retrieved from http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/29/in-myanmar-attacking-the-rohingya-is-good-politics.html
Doyle, D. (2015). Burma elections: Aung San Suu Kyi steers clear of 'stateless' minority the Rohingya. The Independent. UK. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/burma-elections-aung-san-suu-kyi-steers-clear-of-stateless-minority-the-rohingya-a6697341.html
Neuman, S. (2015). Why no one wants the Rohingyas. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/15/407048785/why-no-one-wants-the-rohingyas
Green, P. (2015). Aung San Suu Kyi's silence on the genocide of Rohingya Muslims is tantamount to complicity. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/aung-san-suu-kyis-silence-on-the-genocide-of-rohingya-muslims-is-tantamount-to-complicity-10264497.html