Little over five years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from Myanmar a hero. Arriving in Thailand, she was Asia’s answer to Nelson Mandela: a striking figure standing among ethnic Burmese labourers, she spoke of the spirit they had maintained in the face of a regime which had kept her imprisoned and the country impoverished.
From human rights darling, in the past week Suu Kyi has become demonised for her response to the Rohingya crisis in western Myanmar. With about 370,000 people displaced from an oppressed ethnic and religious minority of 1.1 million, entire villages burned and estimates of 1,000 deaths, the United Nations has called it a textbook case of ethnic cleaning. Five years after being feted on the world stage, she has decided it’s better to stay away from the UN General Assembly in New York next week. Instead, she will reportedly give an address about the need for national unity on Tuesday.
Anyone surprised by the Nobel laureate’s lacklustre response to South-east Asia’s greatest humanitarian crisis hasn’t been paying attention. Silence has been her answer for years, and the backlash is long overdue.
When Rakhine state erupted into riots in late 2012, and the Myanmar army sealed off the area from prying eyes and nosy NGOs as 125,000 people were displaced, Suu Kyi’s decision to stay mute could be explained away as a tactical political decision by an opposition figure playing the long game. There was nothing to gain from speaking up for them, and there was the potential to lose support from the Buddhist majority whose votes she would need in landslide numbers to have any hope of wresting parliamentary control from the former junta and its cronies.
Besides, with ethnic tensions and war raging elsewhere in the country, Myanmar’s newfound openness and democracy was fragile at best. Even now, as Suu Kyi’s government tests the water on establishing a federalist system in fraught peace talks, a ceasefire seems as unlikely as it did in the last days of the junta. On how many fronts could Suu Kyi be expected to fight?
In the aftermath of the 2012 riots, the sense was that once she was in parliament and had a hard-won election behind her, we would see the real Suu Kyi.
To even get that far, Suu Kyi struck a deal with the devil. She may have worked her way around a rigged constitution to create a position for herself above a proxy president, but the army holds key defence and interior ministries and accepts no oversight. Suu Kyi’s silence – or when pushed, her willingness to echo the army line about violence coming from both sides in Rakhine state – has morphed beyond political expediency into a leadership vacuum.
In the 2015 election campaign, there was some mention of how disappointing Suu Kyi had been on the question of ethnic minorities generally and the Rohingya specifically. Murmurs from within her party machine painted her as increasingly single-minded and controlling as they zeroed in on victory. But it was last October, just under a year after her resounding election win, when the army responded to attacks with a series of shocking human rights abuses – unarmed people shot dead, women and girls gang raped, villages scorched, Korans burnt – that the moral failure became inexcusable. Worse, in echoing the army’s equivocations, Suu Kyi has given the impression she can tolerate such actions.
Suu Kyi and the Myanmar army are not wrong to point out the situation is far from black and white. A minority of Rohingya have instigated violence, and the emergence of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army with its claimed links to Islamic State is a frightening development.
Yet the crackdown that came in response has been catastrophic, as UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has said. Silence will only make it worse. It is time for Suu Kyi to break it.