The ongoing genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar –which has driven some 480,000 people from their homes in the last month – has been widely covered in the global press. Many commentators desperately urged de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most celebrated Nobel Peace Laureates, to speak out against the atrocities. Breaking her silence in a televised speech last week, Suu Kyi came crashing from her pedestal as she pointed to ‘allegations and counterallegations’ and a lack of ‘solid evidence,’ and brazenly lied about the end of military operations. Once the darling of the West, they watched on as Suu Kyi denied, legitimized and enabled a genocide committed by the regime that once imprisoned her.
No Nobel laureate has fallen so fast and so far. Stinging with a sense of personal betrayal, Western media singled Suu Kyi out for blame in the crisis. Calls were made to the Nobel Committee to revoke her prize. But, in reality, our collective disappointment has less to do Suu Kyi and more do to with our perception of her. ‘In retrospect, we knew too little of Myanmar,’ BBC correspondent Fergal Keane admitted , ‘And we knew too little of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.’
Aun Sang Suu Kyi had long been hailed in the West as the symbol of political sanctity after serving 15 years in detention as a political prisoner in Myanmar under the rule of an oppressive military junta. In November 2015, she won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first respectable elections in over 50 years. The West hastily decided that ‘Democracy Wins.’ It was a triumphalist story of democratic transition led by the world’s most renowned Nobel laureate – so overflowing with moral beauty it was made into a Luc Besson biopic.
Seduced by symbolism, the West had created the pedestal from which Suu Kyi would later fall. Early clues of her illiberal traits and unsavoury attitudes about Muslims had been overlooked, and Myanmar’s complicated political landscape had been reduced to our own naïve, fond imaginings.
In power and under pressure, Suu Kyi’s fall from grace was now unavoidable. No longer activist or icon, she needed to reposition herself within the domestic realm of power; a process inconveniently complicated by excessive international expectations for saintly morality. Suu Kyi herself saw things as they were. When the BBC’s Fergal Keane asked about her characterization as a ‘sort of amalgam of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa,’ she defensively replied, ‘I have never said that I was.’
Suu Kyi makes decisions based on political calculations, not symbols. Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s top advisors who regularly met with her, was struck by her ‘single-minded pursuit of that objective of political reform.’ Weighing cost against benefit on the issue of the Rohingya, she very deliberately positioned herself on the side of the Buddhist nationalists. Not for fear of losing power, as some then asserted, but in the calculated pursuit of different preferences. In the current crisis, her constituents still overwhelmingly support her. Myanmar does not, she reminded them (and us) in last week’s speech, fear ‘international scrutiny’ over it. She also knows that most powerful governments are unlikely to punish for it.
Her position on the Rohingya was actually clear all along for anyone willing to see it. She’srefused to condemn earlier attacks on the Rohingya, and her office has frequently accused survivors, journalists and human rights groups of fabrications and fake news. Soon after the 2015 elections, she ordered embassies to stop using the term ‘Rohingya’, perpetuating the myth that they are illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and bolstering the ideological pretext for ethno-nationalism.
Even if she had been willing to, Suu Kyi’s ability to achieve anything is complicated by the military who stand smug and untouchable in the shadows. The rigged constitution, written in 2008 before the transition, guarantees their predominance and bars her from the presidency. They are reserved 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and have kept control of home affairs, borders and defence. Changing the constitution is likely among her priorities. She has nonetheless managed to establish herself at the centre of power by, for example, assuming the title of State Counsellor that she declares as ‘above the presidency,’ and by accumulating various ministerial positions.
Suu Kyi absolutely needs to be criticised for her involvement in the genocide – but we shouldn’t be so surprised by it. The West deluded itself by projecting onto her qualities that she could never live up to in power, and emptied her of the traits that they did not want to see. This has had consequences far graver than our own sense of disappointment. As the world lent support in the vain hope that she would live up to the international image, a genocide was unfolding that she had no intention of preventing.
The reputations of other activist-turned-politicians, like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, have been tarnished in much the same way. I doubt Aung San Suu Kyi will be the last.
The views and content expressed herein represent the positions of the author only and not Beyond Violence.
Sophia Turner recently graduated from SOAS with an MSc in Violence, Conflict & Development. She is particularly interested in the role of the arts in conflict and post-conflict situations, and runs activist filmmaking organization Eye Want Change.
Written by Sophia Turner and published on 02-October-2017