Now the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is, or perhaps was, one of the most celebrated female figures in international politics. Throughout her nearly thirty-year political career, she has advocated for human rights and the democratization of Myanmar by means of peaceful protest. After her party’s victory in Myanmar’s 1990 general election, the military refused to hand over power and placed her under house arrest. During her fifteen years of detention, Suu Kyi received international support for her nonviolent opposition. Her work earned her prestigious awards, from the Nobel Peace Prize to the Congressional Gold Medal. Following her release from house arrest, her widespread support in Myanmar led to her appointment as State Counselor, and for all intents and purposes, as head of state and government in Myanmar.
So what did the woman often referred to as “Asia’s Mandela” do to turn universal acclaim into universal criticism? Suu Kyi took office during an extremely dark time in Myanmar’s history. It is important to note a separation of civil and military power in Myanmar. Suu Kyi is limited to civil powers. When she took office, it did not come with a control over the military. For years, the military has persecuted the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim people of Rakhine State of Myanmar, unchecked. An article from BBC News described the Rohingya people as “amongst the world’s least wanted.” Although the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people have lived in the region for centuries, they continue to be denied citizenship and are described by the Myanmar government as illegal immigrants. This year, the Myanmar military drastically increased its persecution of the Rohingya people. In what the UN calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” the military of Myanmar has systematically driven the Rohingya out of Myanmar through incarceration, killing, rape, and terrorization. There has been an outcry from the international human rights community, but perhaps the most important figure of all, the leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been silent on the issue.
Suu Kyi failed to condemn the actions of her country’s military for a long time. Jamie Tarabay of CNN said, “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.” Suu Kyi, one of the world’s strongest advocates for human rights, failed to even condemn the perpetuation of genocide in her own country.
An estimated 536,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar, sparking a refugee crisis in the neighboring countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and most of all, Bangladesh. Despite the obvious, targeted persecution of an ethnic minority, Suu Kyi has vocally denied that an ethnic cleansing is taking place in Myanmar. In an interview with BBC, she described the conflict as “a matter of people on different sides of a divide.”
Perhaps Suu Kyi isn’t the Gandhi or Mother Teresa figure the world thought she was. In the same B.B.C. interview, she was asked if she thought she had been mischaracterized as a human rights champion, to which she replied, “I am just a politician.” Perhaps she is simply ignoring the genocide happening under her nose in an attempt to retain her political office and is just another politician trying to maintain her position of power.
The other, more optimistic, possibility is that she understands the politics she needs to play in order to retain office and effect change. If Suu Kyi were to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya, then human rights activists, the media, and international leaders would commend her for doing the right thing. However, there would also be a very real possibility that her party could lose the next election in Myanmar to military-controlled parties. Clay Fuller of Newsweek said, “If that happens, the strongest voice for democracy in Burma will be silenced, the repression of Rohingya and all other minorities will intensify, and cries will ring out for intervention.” The road to functional, peaceful democracy is probably a long one for Myanmar. Here’s hoping that Aung San Suu Kyi stands up for the entire country’s best interests on its way there. It would be a shame for such a human rights activist to earn “least likely to condemn genocide” in the 2018 yearbook in addition to this year’s.
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