Did Aung San Suu Kyi Betray the Democracy She Promised?

Despite overwhelming criticism, the once outspoken leader has not said a word about the Rohingya persecution.
Tuesday 2 October 2018
The once outspoken leader has been repeatedly criticised for her silence on the issue. Photo: AFP

Once hailed as a hero symbolising the ideals of democracy, integrity and freedom, Aung San Suu Kyi is now the subject of increasing international criticism for her handling of the Rohingya crisis. Perhaps her lengthy house arrest of over 15 years, being forcefully separated from her two children while they were still young and not being able to see her husband, Michael Aris, before he died of prostate cancer in 1999 all took their inevitable toll on the once lauded political figure.

The international community is struggling to understand why she has stayed silent and is unwilling to denounce the treatment of the Rohingya. If not for these traumatising experiences, what other reasons could there be for her continued hesitance in directly addressing the Rohingya crisis? We are reminded of a famous quote ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ It’s been attributed to Edmund Burke, but the actual origins remain murky. Regardless, the meaning is clear – inaction can be tantamount to condemnation of the worst kind.

Since having taken over the state’s leadership in 2016, the activist, who once led Myanmar’s National League for Democracy has only managed to skirt around the issue and speak in ambiguities about the ethnic cleansing and myriad of atrocities that have been carried out by the Burmese military, specifically targeting the minority. This stands in stark contrast to what the Nobel Peace Prize winner said in 2012 in Oslo, that the prize had drawn the world’s attention to Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and human rights. The world is certainly looking at Myanmar, but not for the reasons that she’d hoped.

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Suu Kyi has only downplayed the situation, saying that ‘ethnic cleansing’ was too strong a word to use for the operations by the military. Photo: AFP

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, she said that “Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union.” She continued by stating that “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.”

Apparently inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one cannot help but feel that her words ring hollow as she glossed over what was happening to the Rohingya. Her inaction has directly resulted in a world where being a Rohingya refugee means living with displacement, homelessness and hopelessness, with no end in sight. As long as she remains silent, the Rohingya continue to suffer.

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Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Malaysia hold a banner during a protest outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2015. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Not once in her 30 minute speech did she acknowledge the brutal military crackdown which has only worsened in the last two years. Instead, she only spoke about the fact that there have been no clearance operations by the military since 5 September of that year. She did, however, did go onto condemn “all human rights violations” and declared Myanmar’s commitment to restore peace and stability. She added that her administration “felt deeply for the suffering of the people who have been caught up in the conflict”. The weight of the irony in those statements is abjectly crushing.

In an act of deflection, she added that many other groups besides the Muslims were affected by the conflict. “Those who have had to flee their homes are many, not just Muslims and Rakhines, but also minority groups,” she said, without further naming which minority groups these were. She once said ”It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Now at 73, the actions of the Myanmar State Counsellor leave one to wonder if her words apply to herself.

The ‘Verification Process’

Suu Kyi had stated previously that her administration was ready to begin the verification process for the refugees who had fled to Bangladesh, the agreement for which has been in place since 1992. It strictly states that only refugees registered by the Bangladeshi government can be considered for the verification process.

The agreement also further states that even those who have been registered by Bangladesh must provide evidence of their residence in Myanmar with documents such as citizenship cards, but this is close to impossible as Myanmar denies the Rohingya any form of citizenship. Knowing this is a catch 22 situation, is not the verification process rendered moot? Is not the basis of the Rohingya’s problems that Myanmar denies them citizenship to begin with?

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An ethnic Rohingya Muslim refugee breaks down during a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on December 4, 2016. Photo: AFP

‘We have lost all faith in her’

The Rohingyas cannot find support from Myanmar, but the international community certainly hasn’t ignored their plight. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently spoke strongly about their dire circumstances when he addressed the United Nations at this year’s General Assembly on 18 September, echoing his earlier stance. In 2015, he called for the Malaysian government to boycott allies with the military-led Burmese government.

Not knowing what lay ahead, he’d then praised the efforts of Suu Kyi at that time and said “the Muslims of the Rakhine state may see a new dawn” under her regime. Well, clearly not. Now, almost six months after he regained premiership, Dr Mahathir has openly declared that Malaysia will not support her in any way.

In a recent interview with Turkish news agency TRT World, he said that Suu Kyi seemed to be a “changed person” when it came to the plight of the Rohingya people. “She did not want to say anything against the actions taken by the military against the Rohingya Muslims. So, we (Malaysia) would like to make it quite clear that we do not really support her anymore,” he said adding that he had lost all faith in her.

READ: The Rohingyas Have a ‘Lost Generation’ of Orphans. How Did They End Up Like This?

He pointed out that Malaysia had previously campaigned to have her released from her house arrest and lamented that disappointingly, Suu Kyi had not even responded to a recent letter from him. Dr Mahathir added that Malaysia, even when not under his administration had always advocated for the rights of the Rohingya and stressed that Malaysia had always opened up its borders to the refugees here.

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Rohingya refugees in dire need of assistance on a boat. Photo: AFP

Noble though his words may be, this was not always the case. In May of 2015, the Malaysian government ordered for a vessel carrying Rohingya refugees to “go back to Myanmar”. The then deputy home minister, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, said that Malaysia would use tough measures including turning back asylum-seeker boats as well as deportation in order to “send the right message”.

“We do not want them to come here. We are not prepared to accept that number coming into our shores and as for those people who are already in, we are sending them home anyway. I would like them to be turned back and I would like to ask them to go back to their own country. We cannot tell them we are welcoming them,” he said. Malaysia’s Islamist Party, PAS, followed suit in their comments and said the refugees should go back to their country and fight for their rights instead of being cowards.

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Members of PAS at an election rally earlier this year. PAS’ stance on the Rohingya refugees is that they are cowards who should fight for their rights. Fighting for their rights is exactly what got them labelled as terrorists. Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Malaysia missed an opportunity to display to the world our ability to be magnanimous, instead, taking the regrettable route of ‘sending the right message’, which really, turned out to be the wrong, cruel course of action. These comments from the Malaysian authorities led to a public outcry, drawing criticism from many different organisations including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Following that scenario, Suu Kyi’s comment was that “It was up to the government to end the violence,” but surely, action should have started with her own government not perpetrating any violence at all? We don’t know anything about running a country, but that seems to be the obvious thing not to do.

READ: Aung San Suu Kyi Claims Jailed Journalists were “Treated Fairly”

Her failure to never actually take a stand on the matter also drew a lot of criticism worldwide, including from the Dalai Lama who had said that he had approached Suu Kyi twice to speak up on the issue. For such a staunchly Buddhist nation such as Myanmar, you know you’ve messed up when the religion’s holiest spiritual leader calls you out.

In November last year, she was formally stripped of an honour granting her the Freedom of Oxford because of her muted response to the Rohingya crisis. Musician Bob Geldof handed back his Freedom of Dublin award to protest against the inclusion of Ms Suu Kyi on the honours list. And she was also recently been stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship, making her the first person to have it revoked. Canada’s basically the ‘nice guy’ of the world and somehow, she’s managed to tick them off too. There have also been many calls for her to be stripped off her Nobel Peace Prize.

It remains unclear why this once vocal human rights advocate is keeping quiet while thousands in her country are being persecuted day by day. As State Counsellor, Suu Kyi makes most of Myanmar’s important decisions but crucially, the military retains control of three vital ministries – those of home affairs, defence and border affairs. As Rakhine State lies on the border with Bangladesh, this falls under the purview of the military. As long as the military has a stronghold of these ministries and as long as Suu Kyi maintains her position of silence, it is tragically likely that not much will change for the Rohingya.

Her actions (or lack thereof) beg the questions: What does the Myanmar military have on Aung San Suu Kyi? Does she feel like she has no control or any say in the matter? Will doing so incur the wrath of the Buddhist nationalists and the military? Undoubtedly so. But isn’t that why she campaigned for decades and was thrown into house arrest to begin with? For the ideals of a Myanmar who could begin to believe in and actually espouse what a democracy was meant to be? The road for democracy was never easy for Myanmar and for Aung San Suu Kyi, but as long as she remains silent on the Rohingya crisis, the more of a waste her battle for democracy becomes.

Related: Myanmar in Denial Over Genocide Against the Rohingya