By Tom Smith, University of Portsmouth
17 February 2017
Aung San Suu Kyi, the famed and much fawned-over former opposition leader of Myanmar, cannot be immune to criticism. Undoubtedly a force for good in opposition, I believe she has failed to live up to her promise since her release from house arrest in 2010.
While she was blocked from becoming president in the country’s civilian elections, she nonetheless became de facto head of government as “state counsellor” – a position created just for her. She is far from a disempowered opposition voice and, after years of flexing her muscles in power, she faces quiet but mounting international disquiet. Many once-devoted onlookers worry she hasn’t done enough to stand up to allegations that the military’s actions may constitute crimes against humanity. Those alleged crimes include the violent persecution of Myanmar’s 1.3m ethnic Rohingya Muslims.
Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, many in overcrowded boats, starving to death in the process. Reports on the scale of the massacres and ethnic cleansing are evidenced by satellite images showing entire Rohingya villages destroyed, including 820 buildings in just eight days. Myanmar’s authorities have denied the allegations of abuse.
And yet, Suu Kyi has remained largely silent, at least on the international stage. When she has occasionally been pressed on the topic of Rohingya suffering, often by the foreign media that once covered her own plight, she has disappointed with her answers. In 2013, she told the BBC that the violence stemmed from fear felt on both sides and rejected claims of ethnic cleansing. In December 2016, she even accused “the international community” of “concentrating on the negative side of the situation”.
Meanwhile, the same Western leaders who lauded Suu Kyi as a beacon of reform and praised her for her dignity are now largely overlooking her apparent inaction. The task of raising the alarm over the Rohingya’s plight has been left to human rights advocates around the world, among them the Dalai Lama, more than a dozen fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, Malala Yousafzai, and Suu Kyi’s friend and defender Desmond Tutu.
Since Suu Kyi’s release, there have been rumblings of disapproval from the international media, whose support helped put her in power in the first place.
The shine rubs off
Warning signs of her sensitivity to public criticism began to appear while she was still under house arrest: back in 2008, a sharply critical Guardian article roused a complaint from Suu Kyi’s family and a special apology from the newspaper, which corrected errors in the piece but declined to withdraw it.
Media criticism has intensified since Suu Kyi’s release. Al-Jazeera’s Medhi Hassan was among the first to openly condemn Suu Kyi: “It is well past time to take off the rose-tinted glasses,” he wrote, “to see Suu Kyi for what she is: a former prisoner of conscience, yes, but now a cynical politician who is willing to put votes ahead of principles.”
Other outlets, such as The New York Times and the Independent have also highlighted what they deem to be Suu Kyi’s inadequate response to the violence, but this has as yet done little or nothing to ramp up international political pressure. In June 2015, The Daily Telegraph asked: “Is human rights heroine tarnished by her silence on persecution?” But the tarnishing (or not) of her reputation isn’t the point, and nor are debates about revoking her Nobel Peace Prize or honorary degree from Oxford.
Even if Suu Kyi is powerless to stand in the military’s way, she is clearly able to speak out in some capacity, just as she could and did when in opposition. The Rohingya need her voice: Human Rights Watch reports that they are dying in boats run by smugglers and traffickers and in interment camps, their cause has already been hijacked by jihadists, and ASEAN, a political bloc meant to bring South-East Asia’s countries together, is toothless as ever.
The excuse normally given is that the issue requires “a very delicate balance” between democratic progress and reforming the junta. That’s fair enough in itself; former Human Rights Watch researcher David Scott Mathieson is correct when he says “a more calibrated understanding of the difficulties” is needed. But Suu Kyi has yet to publicly advance any such understanding. She is running out of excuses, and her status as a heroine for all her people is surely in danger.