Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a joint a press conference with Sweden's prime minister on June 12, 2017, in Stockholm. Photo: AFP / Jonathan Nackstrand
Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a joint a press conference with Sweden's prime minister on June 12, 2017, in Stockholm. Photo: AFP / Jonathan Nackstrand

It is not rare that politicians who are admired while in opposition are  despised when in power. But Aung San Suu Kyi is probably the first to fall from international good graces so fast, so far.

For decades, the leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was idolized around the world for her persistent and peaceful struggle against the military dictatorship in her country. Her defiant fight for democracy won her many prestigious international honors and accolades, including a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet just two years after her party triumphed in a historic election and a year and a half after she assumed the role of Myanmar’s state counselor, the newly democratized country’s de facto leader, the former political prisoner’s halo has disappeared.

During the past few weeks, media groups, pro-democracy figures and rights activists around the globe have slammed her for failing to deal with the ruthless oppression of minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Some have even urged the Nobel Peace Committee to strip the prize it awarded Suu Kyi, also known as “The Lady” or “Daw Suu”, in 1991. A petition calling for her to be stripped of the prestigious prize had garnered more than 400,000 signatures as of Monday.

In many respects, such international criticisms are understandable. One of these is the gravity of the Rohingya plight. Since violence exploded in Rakhine on August 25, the Rohingya Muslims have been violently and systematically targeted by Myanmar’s security forces. Their houses have been burned and their villages destroyed, forcing about 400,000 of them, one-third of their population, the majority of them women and children, to flee in distress to neighboring Bangladesh.

Instead of publicly denouncing what the top United Nations human-rights official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in her own country, Suu Kyi blasted global criticism of the catastrophe as fake news, calling it a “huge iceberg of misinformation”. She even accused international aid groups of supporting the Rohingya insurgency.

Many people have turned on her because she is failing to do – or even doing the opposite of – what she called for, fought for and was revered for during her political struggle.

In her Nobel lecture in 2012, The Lady said she thought of – and urged the world not to forget – those suffering from “hunger, disease, displacement, joblessness, poverty, injustice, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry” and those forced to “live out their lives among strangers who are not always welcoming”.

The hitherto iconic leader also called for “a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless”.

Without doubt, hunger, displacement, injustice, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry and violence are all that the homeless, stateless and hopeless Rohingya Muslims are now facing.

That her government has called on China and Russia, two “friendly countries”, to block any move by the UN Security Council to censure it over the persecution of the Rohingya is also very telling.

During her long struggle against the military junta, whose regime was backed only by Beijing and a handful of other dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, she turned to democratic governments and rights defenders in the West for help.

And now, to fence off the criticisms – mostly from the West – of its failure to deal with the Rohingya persecution, her government has sought support from the authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow.

This shows the once renowned pro-democracy leader is now somehow alienated from the liberal and democratic ideals that she fought for.

Nonetheless, it is unjust to blame her wholly for the Rohingya catastrophe.

Like any major conflict that involves ethnic, racial and religious factors and actors, the Rohingya issue is an age-old, deep-rooted and violence-prone problem that she cannot singlehandedly and quickly resolve.

Though the Rohingya have been in the country for generations, if not centuries, they have not been considered citizens of Myanmar. They have been discriminated against and persecuted by the country’s Buddhist majority and authorities. This mistreatment has generated resentment. As a consequence, deadly violence between the two communities has broken out many times in the past, with the Rohingya always suffering the most.

The turmoil was recently exacerbated after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) staged raids on about 30 police stations and an army base in Rakhine on August 25, killing about a dozen people. This Muslim militant group said it attacked the military and police to protest the maltreatment of its people.

But whatever the ARSA’s motive was, violence is never a good solution to the problem. Instead, its uprising provided Myanmar’s security forces and local Buddhist vigilantes with a reason, if not a pretext, to instigate a brutal campaign against the Rohingya during the last three weeks.

In addition to the longevity, complexity and intractability of the Rohingya problem, Suu Kyi is not in a commanding position to deal with it.

Though her NLD won an absolute majority in the country’s parliament in the November 2015 general election and was allowed to form a new democratic government in March 2016, Daw Suu was blocked from becoming president. Under the constitution imposed by the former military rulers, besides being barred from that role (because she has children who are foreigners), the state counselor, her official title, controls only the civilian side of government.

The country’s three influential security-related ministries – namely Interior, Defense and Border Affairs – are held by the military, which also controls a quarter of the seats in parliament.

As the army, currently led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, still has sweeping powers, it is perhaps correct to say that it is even more powerful than Suu Kyi’s civilian government.

Given her peculiar and fragile situation, coupled with – or reflected by – the fact that the military is widely seen as at the front of the current calamity, greater international criticism and pressure should be put on the army.

The prejudice against the Rohingya Muslims also apparently runs wide and deep among Myanmar’s Buddhists and many NLD members. Yet, having been severely repressed during the decades-long military rule, they all perhaps know very well the pain of being unjustly and violently oppressed. Consequently, they should treat their Rohingya countrymen fairly because, as Suu Kyi herself declared in 2012, “Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.”

On August 28, just a few days after the Myanmar military intensified its scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya, Pope Francis made a plea for “men and women of goodwill” to help them and “give them their full rights”.

Though his message was also aimed at the global audience, the first among those people of “goodwill” must – and should – be Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Aung Hlaing and the people of Myanmar, which the head of the Roman Catholic Church is scheduled to visit in November.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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