As she collected her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo 21 years after it was awarded, Aung San Suu Kyi recalled her years in isolation as a political prisoner, held under house arrest by what was then Burma’s ruling junta.
Speaking at Oslo’s City Hall in 2012, she remembered meditating on the nature of suffering in the context of her Buddhist faith.
“I thought of that great mass of the uprooted of the earth who have been torn away from their homes, parted from families and friends [and] forced to live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming,” she told the assembled notables.
Suu Kyi’s critics now see it as a cruel irony that those words so aptly describe the more than 900,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims languishing in camps in Bangladesh, after fleeing what the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar under Suu Kyi’s administration.
Because of her inaction over the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi has been stripped of numerous international awards and honors, including a major human rights award from the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Earlier this year, longtime U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson accused Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership.”
Her critics lament that this Nobel Peace laureate, once hailed as heir to the tradition of nonviolent resistance to oppression, could preside over acts of genocide. They ponder whether coming to power changed her or whether they misjudged her from the start and built her up into something that she was not.
“She’s not a democrat. She has no regard for human rights,” says Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute, a civic group that works to train other civic groups. “All this likeness of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, it’s all make-believe. And now we know the real Aung San Suu Kyi.”
In public, Suu Kyi Suu Kyi has advocated an even-handed approach to the longstanding conflict between the Buddhist Rakhine and the minority Muslim Rohingya.
“It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility,” she told foreign diplomats last September. “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.”
Suu Kyi’s reputation and popularity remain largely intact in Myanmar. She is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who helped negotiate the country’s independence from the British in 1947. She and her party, the National League for Democracy, swept to power in the 2015 elections, the freest Myanmar had seen in 25 years of military rule.
But in many ways, the military remains in the driver’s seat. Suu Kyi’s supporters argue that if she challenges the military on the Rohingya issue or any of the other ethnic conflicts smoldering in the country’s border areas, she could wind up back under house arrest and the country could descend into chaos.
“If we take the proper action in accordance with the Western community, there will be nationwide demonstrations,” warns Myo Nyunt, an NLD spokesman.
An international commission headed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the way to resolve the root of the problem is to give the stateless Rohingya citizenship. Suu Kyi has promised to implement the commission’s recommendations.
But Myo Nyunt believes that if the government moves too quickly to implement the advice, conservative forces loyal to the old junta could organize and pay mobs of provocateurs to stage destabilizing protests and riots to whip up public sentiment against Muslims.
Eyewitnesses described similar incidents in 2013, when clashes between Muslims and Buddhists spread from Rakhine State to Myanmar’s heartland.
“The police were informed, but no action was taken,” Myo Nyunt says in an interview at NLD party headquarters in Yangon. “We have photos of those gangs or mobs.”
Myo Nyunt admits that the NLD, which was formed in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in 1988, lacks the political muscle to overcome resistance from corrupt bureaucrats and intransigent local officials and effectively implement its own policies, such as efforts to strengthen the rule of law and rev up the economy.
But international condemnation of Myanmar’s government, Myo Nyunt says, has “pushed Myanmar eastward” — in other words, away from Western governments and toward China, which has sided with the Myanmar government on the Rohingya issue.
For now, he says, Suu Kyi is focusing on getting Myanmar’s military to cooperate with her, with an eye toward her future goals of constitutional reform and instituting a federal system. And, he says, Suu Kyi has worked to prevent the military from committing human rights abuses.
In her September speech, Suu Kyi said, “The security forces have been instructed to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians.”
But her critics don’t see much difference between her attitude toward the Rohingya and the military’s.
“Our hope was that she can make the country a peaceful country, a democratic country, which is good for all people,” says Kyaw Min, an ethnic Rohingya and president of the opposition Democracy and Human Rights Party. “But in practice, when she came in power, we found a different Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Before she was elected to parliament in 2012, he notes, Suu Kyi decried Myanmar’s military’s use of rape as a tool in its fight against ethnic insurgents.
“But today,” he says, “when these things are happening in northern Rakhine State, she says these reports are fake.”
Kyaw Min says he’s not convinced that Suu Kyi is powerless to control the military.
“If she cannot introduce a strategy that will bring full power to civilian government, or to her, it is her failure,” he says. “It is not the failure of the public.”
Kyaw Min won a parliamentary seat in 1990 elections, which Suu Kyi and the NLD swept. But the military refused to let them take power back then. Kyaw Min joined Suu Kyi in a sort of shadow government, but was later sentenced to 47 years in jail. He says Suu Kyi has ignored him ever since he was freed in a general amnesty in 2012.
The Rohingya crisis is not the only issue about which Suu Kyi’s former supporters feel disillusioned.
“We voted for the NLD government, we expected that they can establish democracy and human rights in our society,” says Thet Swe Win, one of a new generation of activists in Myanmar. During an anti-war demonstration last month, he was among several young demonstrators charged with violating the country’s law on protests. “So the government has the responsibility to guide the people to a real democracy. But they never make it happen.”
Critics also assail the government’s backsliding on press freedoms, epitomized by the arrest last December of two Reuters journalists who reported on the military’s massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine State. Pre-trial hearings concluded this week for the journalists.
Some international human rights groups have called for Myanmar’s leaders, including Suu Kyi, to be held accountable for crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. U.N. Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Yanghee Lee has suggested this is a possibility. And although no charges have been filed, the ICC’s prosecutor has asked the court to clarify whether it has jurisdiction over the alleged expulsion of Rohingya
Suu Kyi turned 73 on June 19 and has two years left in office. Her party has begun to groom new leaders to succeed her. In the time she has left, Khin Zaw Win doubts that Suu Kyi can either outmaneuver the military or rescue her political reputation in the eyes of disillusioned former political allies.
His advice to both her admirers and critics is simple: “Don’t be disappointed, but just treat her as she really is. Don’t be an apologist for her, and don’t attack her.”
In other words, he believes, just as people shouldn’t have sanctified her before, there’s no point in demonizing her now.