Few if any Asian leaders have been showered with as many human rights honors and accolades as Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Similarly, never has the hallowed image of a rights and democracy icon so quickly crumbled to reveal as flinty and frivolous a leader in the face of mass crimes against humanity.
Western outrage over her disregard and denials for the violent expulsion of Rohingya Muslims, and silence over Myanmar military abuses against ethnic minorities in many other parts of the country, have been sustained at fever pitch for nearly two years.
But Amnesty International may have delivered the coup de grâce of Suu Kyi’s human rights credibility by withdrawing on Tuesday the title of “Ambassador of Conscience” they awarded to her in 2009 while she was in house arrest under repressive military rule.
Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s secretary general, sent Suu Kyi a letter warning her the honor would be withdrawn, and saying he was “profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defense of human rights.”
Amnesty also redirected Suu Kyi’s platitudes against her, reminding the world that when she accepted the award in 2012 she exhorted the organization to “not take either your eyes or your mind off us and help us to be the country where hope and history merges.”
The stripping of Amnesty’s honor was a far cry from the time the global rights group celebrated Suu Kyi as the most famous “prisoner of conscience” in the world. Upon her release in late 2010, Suu Kyi maintained the façade of human rights champion, visiting Amnesty in New York where she expressed solidarity with the persecuted Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot.
But in the lead-up to the 2015 elections that catapulted her to power, Suu Kyi’s patience with Myanmar and international human rights groups was already wearing thin. Once in office, she failed to advance rights promoting laws or speak out on behalf of political prisoners.
Amnesty, given its long campaigns for prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, 115 of which are currently members of parliament, has had better access to the inner circles of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) than most other human rights organizations.
But the organization’s exemplary work on documenting Myanmar military crimes perpetrated against civilians in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states – including a report on massacres perpetrated by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) against Rakhine Hindus – strained those relations amid the NLD’s almost total rejection of human rights.
Various organizations have stripped Suu Kyi of previous awards and prizes bestowed upon her for her past commitment to rights. Symbolically, however, Amnesty’s withdrawal is the biggest hit of all.
This isn’t the Freedom of the City of Sheffield, or Canadian Honorary Citizenship, her portrait being taken down at Oxford University, a chapter in her honor in the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book pressured to be cut in an updated edition, or rent-a-celebrity Bob Geldof huffingly returning his keys to the City of Dublin in protest because Suu Kyi has the same award, or even the Irish band U2 denouncing her silence as “assent.”
About her only remaining friend in the West is US Senator Mitch McConnell who has deplored so much criticism of Suu Kyi, saying in an interview in October that “The pile-on has been quite obvious. It’s also noteworthy that it hasn’t done any good.”
Amnesty International is the biggest human rights organization in the world. It was instrumental in not just “making” Suu Kyi, but also in spotlighting the thousands of political prisoners in Myanmar during the 1990s and internationalizing the human rights situation.
Amnesty’s actions are effectively an excommunication of Suu Kyi from the pantheon of human rights champions. Suu Kyi herself was an arrogant apostate over the last two years with her pitiless apologies for the military’s mass atrocities in Rakhine and northern Myanmar
Hysterical demands for the Nobel Committee to rescind the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991 have been outraged distractions, and the committee itself has stated that it never withdraws prizes awarded for past actions, with committee head Berit Reiss-Andersen saying that “(t)he prize winners themselves have to safeguard their own reputation.”
But Suu Kyi, with all her arrogance, aloofness, and idiosyncrasies, has seemed as unconcerned with her reputation as she has the fate of the Rohingya. In a recent interview with Japan’s NHK, Suu Kyi said of foreign criticism, “I think friendship means understanding, basically, trying to understand rather than to just make your own judgement, but prizes come and prizes go.”
Many of the prizes she received were unsolicited, even after her 2013 interview with CNN when she said, “I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party.”
And yet even as the warning signs of her increasing distance from human rights principles grew, prizes continued to be showered upon her.
In 2016, Harvard University named her the Humanitarian of the Year, while she was also given the Helen Keller International Humanitarian Award (with social media satire in Myanmar portraying the award as fitting for someone who couldn’t see, hear or speak).
While Suu Kyi will go down in infamy as a human rights opportunist, if not an aloof and incompetent politician elevated to a position well beyond her competency, Amnesty and others who promoted her façade deserve some of the blame due to their own self-importance, self-promotion and fund-raising agendas.
Ideally, Suu Kyi’s fall from grace gives rise to a more rigorous auditing of personalities who are thrust to public prominence and celebrated without a clear indication of their character.
All this unsolicited hero-worship and symbolic baubles appeared to impress Suu Kyi when she was inundated with them – and she clearly enjoyed the laudatory attention. Yet she will likely pass off Amnesty’s withdrawal of its award as another concoction of the West to frustrate Myanmar’s “democratic” transition.
So far, she has not shown an iota of contrition over the mass crimes in Rakhine state, or the suffering of so many other people trapped in her country’s endless civil war. She has shown herself incapable, even defiant, of anything so weak as empathy and compassion.
Yet the international convulsions over Suu Kyi’s arrogance and incompetence have been somewhat misplaced considering her silence and inaction has really been a smokescreen to cover those truly responsible for atrocities: the Myanmar military and its top leadership, especially Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Amnesty has skillfully directed attention towards the commander in chief, portraying him as the figure most responsible for past and ongoing abuses. During the United Nations General Assembly in September, Amnesty drove a truck around Manhattan with Min Aung Hlaing’s pictures displayed on LED screens and the words “Wanted for Mass Murder.”
Suu Kyi will likely bristle at Amnesty’s latest action, but it will have no significant repercussions for the country or efforts to seek accountability. That’s in part because anti-Western nationalism that is rallying around Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s reputation, and the downgrading of relations with the West in favor of less critical Asian nations.
There is so little domestic sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar that criticism of Suu Kyi has been seen as an attack on the country. Many people have rallied around the State Counsellor on social media, where “Amay Suu” (Mother Suu) is still widely perceived as an almost divine deliverer of democratic change.
That attitude doesn’t extend to many ethnic areas, where feelings about her have always been more mixed. The danger of this resurgent defensive nationalism revolves around how it will be harnessed by the military and ultra-nationalist hardliners ahead of 2020 elections.
Relations with the West, especially the United States and United Kingdom, is at its lowest point in years. The United Nations is woefully divided, with one hand issuing a damning report that documents crimes against humanity and war crimes, with the other agreeing to secretive agreements with Naypyidaw to prepare for the repatriation of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
Given the volume of Western pressure over atrocity crimes in Myanmar, with calls for independent tribunals to be established, a looming International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation, and the restoration of Myanmar’s reputation as an international pariah, Amnesty’s repealing a 20-year old award may seem trivial.
But it symbolically underscores how Suu Kyi’s imperious governance style, her government’s general arrogance and incompetence, and the malevolence of the Myanmar military and their leadership, have deeply scarred the conscience of the entire country, domestically and internationally.
Heading towards what are expected to be deeply divisive 2020 polls, Myanmar’s political scene will be bereft of any genuine leadership on human rights, while the military will not have lost a sliver of political or economic power. That will be Suu Kyi’s real legacy: jettisoning her once vaunted principles and getting nothing in return.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst