THE FALL OF A SAINT
Rarely can the reputation of an international figure have plummeted as swiftly and as deeply as that of Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of an independence hero, revered as ‘The Lady’ among millions of her own people as they suffered decades of military oppression, she won the admiration of the world and a Nobel Peace Prize for her calm resistance to constant persecution by the former regime.
When the generals finally relented, freeing Suu Kyi from long years of house arrest and finally allowing free elections, it seemed that Myanmar was on the threshold of a new era. Though she was prevented from assuming the presidency, her position as State Counsellor, the most senior civilian politician in the governing structure, led to her being commonly described as Myanmar’s de facto leader. But recent events have led to that description, along with much else, coming under question.
How is it that fellow Peace Prize laureates such as Malala Yusufzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have publicly condemned her refusal to speak out against the genocidal treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority? Close observers of ‘The Lady’ have been pointing out for some time that in office, what was once lauded as her obdurate refusal to bend to her oppressors is now looking like stubborn inflexibility, not to say a regal disdain for her critics. Those flaws are arousing ever-increasing indignation abroad as the suffering of the Rohingyas worsens.
When the United Nations estimated that 400,000 of the one million Rohingyas in Rakhine state had fled across the border to Bangladesh, and that Muslim villages were being burned every day by security forces and Buddhist gangs, the former champion of human rights borrowed the language of Donald Trump, calling the UN allegations ‘fake news’. In her first speech on the subject, she said she did not know why the Rohingyas had fled, and claimed that ‘clearance operations’ had ceased two weeks earlier, when a tightly-controlled press trip to the region had still managed to show evidence to the contrary.
Suu Kyi can hardly claim ignorance of the discrimination and violence suffered by the Rohingyas: they were described in detail in the report of a commission of inquiry led by the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, which was handed to her as recently as August. The latest crackdown was touched off when Rohingya militants attacked the security forces, killing 12, but the report makes clear the degree of provocation which lay behind the clash, while the retaliation has been described as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’ by the UN’s senior human rights official.
Some point out that Suu Kyi’s father was a fiercely nationalistic general who spoke for the Buddhist Burman majority rather than minorities such as the Rohingyas; others that the political settlement that brought her to office excluded her from any role in military and security matters. But a woman never afraid to speak out during her years as an opposition figurehead now declines to admit any limitations on her ability to act, or to hold the military in any way to account. Rather than having been outmanoeuvred by the generals, it seems that she has accepted her position with open eyes, and that she shares their belief that the Rohingyas are aliens not entitled to citizenship or other rights.
The consequences of Suu Kyi’s fall from grace range from the crisis caused in Bangladesh by the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, equalling the number of Rohingyas already there, to the warning from Malaysia that Myanmar’s actions risk stirring up Islamist militancy. But for the West there is also a lesson to be drawn, concerning its approach to Asian leaders.
The Western media tends to fall too easily for photogenic, Western-educated icons such as the late Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. She knew how to speak the language of human rights while abroad, but did not live up to those ideals in office. Now, unless she changes course drastically – and there is no sign of her doing so – Aung San Suu Kyi will find herself in the same category. What the international media needs to learn, as do the politicians they influence, is that creating saints and villains is no way to approach complex and difficult situations such as the Rohingya crisis.