Human & Machine• POLITICS

Aung San Suu Kyi, Hero and Villain

From winning the Nobel Peace Prize to presiding over genocide.
Jennifer Freedman

The numbers speak for themselves: more than 10,000 people killed, hundreds of women and girls raped, at least 400 villages razed, and well over 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees forced to flee Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since 2017. And one Nobel laureate who has come under scorching criticism for failing to use her de facto position as Myanmar’s leader to do anything about it.

Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the world’s most admired people in the world before the Rohingya crisis, which has been dubbed a genocide by Marzudi Darusman, the chairman of the United Nations independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar. Her fall from grace came swiftly, as she snubbed calls to condemn Myanmar’s powerful military or acknowledge accounts of atrocities and systematic ethnic cleansing.

“She is an utter disgrace,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells Overture. “Aung San Suu Kyi has betrayed every principle she ever stood for when it comes to respecting human rights, maintaining nondiscrimination, and upholding basic democratic principles.”

The violence in Rakhine state, a region of western Myanmar where the Rohingya have lived since the eighth century, has escalated into a “horrific human rights catastrophe,” Darusman told journalists when presenting the UN mission’s findings in Geneva last August. Although the report specifically blames Myanmar’s armed forces for using rape, arson, and murder to drive Rohingya out of the country, “responsibility starts at the top,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, a member of the fact-finding mission. Suu Kyi and her government have “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes” through “acts and omissions,” the 444-page report says. 

“We are deeply disappointed that Aung San Suu Kyi has not used her position or her moral authority to stem, prevent, or condemn the unfolding events in Rakhine state,” Coomaraswamy said.

Suu Kyi, 73, is the youngest daughter of Aung San, a Burmese nationalist leader and assassinated hero who was instrumental in securing the independence of Burma (now Myanmar) from Great Britain. She won the country’s 1988 presidential election – which the ruling junta refused to honor – and was placed under house arrest the following year. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her defiance of the military regime, which had seized power in a 1962 coup. 

She remained under house arrest for almost 15 years between 1989 and 2010, becoming one of the world's most prominent political prisoners. Her detention symbolized the struggle to rid Myanmar of decades of military rule. Suu Kyi swept into power in a historic landslide election in 2015 that many around the world had hoped would bring greater freedom and stability to the nation.

Instead, she is seen as an enabler of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and her refusal to condemn the military crackdown is perceived as tacit approval for the atrocities being committed against the Rohingya. Before he stepped down as UN human rights chief last year, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein told BBC that Suu Kyi should have resigned and considered returning to house arrest rather than be an “adjunct accessory” to the violence.

Her dwindling number of international defenders argue that she is a pragmatic politician trying to pilot a multi-ethnic country with a complex history and a Buddhist majority that cares little about the Rohingya Muslim minority. They point out that the military, known as the Tatmadaw, wields considerable political power and refuses to surrender control of the security forces that have been blamed for the carnage. 

The 2008 constitution, written by the generals who ruled Myanmar for decades, gives the commander-in-chief sole control over military affairs. This means no civilian authority – even Suu Kyi, whose official title is state counselor, though she is widely seen as Myanmar’s actual leader – exercises legal powers or oversight over the Tatmadaw. She is now taking steps to amend the constitution to reduce the military’s clout, something that promises to be a long and acrimonious process.

But critics say she has lost moral standing, as well as her lofty reputation as someone willing to fight for human rights despite the personal cost. They say that even with her limited powers, her political party’s control of parliament and the presidency means she could enact legislation on an array of social issues that lie outside the Tatmadaw’s jurisdiction.

“Her position as Myanmar’s de facto leader gives her huge leverage and influence to rein in military abuses – not least by condemning atrocities and calling for an immediate halt to the violence,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia. “Instead, her administration has dismissed, downplayed, or else denied allegations of serious human rights violations and obstructed attempts to investigate military abuses.”

In November, Amnesty revoked the Ambassador of Conscience Award that it had given Suu Kyi in 2009, saying she no longer represented “a symbol of hope, courage and the undying defense of human rights.” She’s been stripped of a gamut of other honors and prizes, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s prestigious Elie Wiesel Award and South Korea’s 2004 Gwangju human rights award to her honorary Canadian citizenship. European cities including Paris, London, Oxford, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Glasgow have rescinded their “freedom of city” awards. Last August, liberal members of the European Parliament called for the assembly to withdraw the Sakharov Prize that Suu Kyi reportedly keeps on her mantlepiece alongside her Nobel Peace Prize.

That Nobel prize – perhaps the biggest feather in Suu Kyi’s cap – will remain hers. The award, bestowed “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” while she was under house arrest in Rangoon (now Yangon), isn’t revocable. Berit Reiss-Andersen, who heads the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in 2017 that “it’s not our task to oversee or censor what a laureate does after the prize has been won. The prize winners themselves have to safeguard their own reputations.”

Activists such as Robertson say it is “too bad” there is no procedure to revoke a Nobel Peace Prize “because that is certainly what should happen in her case.” But others disagree.

“I do not think it would have a positive effect on her thinking or, more importantly, that it would help the situation of those suffering most in Myanmar,” says Hunter Marston, an independent consultant based in Washington. “The consequence of taking away any awards – or not doing so – is more a question of symbolism than any practical impact."

In fact, he says, rescinding the Nobel prize could prove counterproductive.

“It would further isolate her and give voice to powerful undercurrents of resentment felt by Burmans, who resent the way the external world has characterized Aung San Suu Kyi as a villain in this conflict,” Marston says. “Regardless of the merits of that view, the implication is that taking away her awards would actually only lead her and her supporters to dig in further, empower ethno-nationalism, and deepen xenophobia as well as distrust of the West.”

Suu Kyi has defended the military action against the Rohingya – who cannot become citizens of Myanmar and are therefore effectively stateless – and insisted that outsiders don’t understand the complexities of the situation. She’s also denied accusations of ethnic cleansing, asserting that the tensions stemmed from a “climate of fear” caused by “a worldwide perception that global Muslim power is ‘very great.’” She has described her relationship with the army as “not that bad” and called the three generals in the cabinet “rather sweet.”

Her only concession to the growing worldwide condemnation of her government was an acknowledgement that “there are ways, of course, ways in which, with hindsight, we might think that the situation could have been handled better."That’s not nearly enough, Robertson says.“Unfortunately, Suu Kyi has defended the Tatmadaw and lied to the international community about the operations in northern Rakhine state, effectively becoming part of the cover-up of the atrocities,” he argues. “Unless she completely reverses course and acts now to support international accountability for the Tatmadaw’s crimes identified by the fact-finding mission, she must be considered part of the problem and be held responsible for her actions.”

Many youth in Myanmar are deeply disappointed about Suu Kyi’s record in government and are turning to new vehicles for change. Prominent youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi has called the Rakhine crisis “a test of who is a real human rights defender and who is not. It was shocking for us.” She said in early March that she felt “devastated and frustrated” after reading a report on a new book about Suu Kyi’s political future. “As a young citizen, I feel hopeless. Her time is over. Lesson over,” Shunlei Yi said in a March 5 Twitter post.

Even appeals by fellow Nobel laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, have failed to sway Suu Kyi – publicly, anyway. They were among the 13 laureates and 10 activists who sent an open letter to the UN Security Council in December 2016 criticizing her for not denouncing the bloody military crackdown. But “despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with the primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”

Yousafzai, a Pakistani Muslim and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in a 2017 Twitter post that “over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting."

But perhaps the most heartbreaking words came from Tutu, if only because of the close relationship he and Suu Kyi had before the Rohingya crisis exploded in 2017. In September of that year, Tutu broke his “vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness” about the “unfolding horror” and “ethnic cleansing” in the Rakhine region. In a brutally honest but poignant open letter published on social media, he urged Suu Kyi, whom he called his “dearly beloved younger sister,” to “speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people.”

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” Tutu wrote.

His words “probably hurt more than any others,” a UN human rights official in Geneva tells Overture. But Robertson says Suu Kyi “has become her own worst enemy, giving international friends like Desmond Tutu the snub when they demand she respect human rights. The letter only served to fracture whatever remaining relationship existed between the two former allies.”

Marston believes that, privately, Suu Kyi may have “many deep regrets about the course her political life has taken her since the heady days of idealism in 1988 and 1990. However, if she harbors any guilt over her role in the Rohingya crisis and Myanmar's other crises, she does not show it publicly.”

Although the “sky-high expectations” of what Suu Kyi could achieve were never justified, given the enormous structural obstacles and the power-sharing arrangement with the military, “rarely has the reputation of a leader fallen so far, so fast,” the International Crisis Group said last August. But even against more realistic benchmarks, her government “has underperformed on the peace process, governance, and the economy,” the Brussels-based think tank said in a 16-page report. “The military’s brutal maltreatment of the Rohingya – involving crimes against humanity and which a UN report has said merit investigation for genocide – and the Suu Kyi government’s acquiescence therein, became a defining new crisis.”

When Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, she told supporters at the gates of her lakeside compound, “There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal. We have a lot of things to do.”

Today, her decision to remain quiet instead of condemning the military’s campaign against the Rohingya is seen as her unspoken endorsement of the atrocities. The world would certainly agree with what Suu Kyi herself said nine years ago: There is a time to talk. And that time is now.