Beyond the Pedestal: Aung San Suu Kyi
by Kimi Rodriguez
February 9, 2019
These words, spoken by a young Myanmar activist as she witnessed her heroine Aung San Suu Kyi storm out of a meeting in New York, voice a question many are echoing today. The meeting was held for an NGO founded by Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams, who is known for her work in banning anti-personnel landmines and her defense of human rights, and Suu Kyi was expected to speak to the current human rights issues in Myanmar. However, after the meeting, Williams told the New Yorker that Suu Kyi “was hostile to any question about human rights in her country,” a hostility that, given her status as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate herself, shocked and disappointed the young activist and, undoubtedly, many more in the crowd.
In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Today, the Myanmar government, in which she holds a prominent position, is condemned by the international community for committing genocide against the minority Rohingya population in the country’s Rakhine state. Many are now wondering: how could Suu Kyi not speak against a clear violation of human rights committed by the government she had, until recently, been speaking up against? The journalists, activists, Nobel Prize winners, celebrities, politicians, and students who once praised Suu Kyi as a beacon of hope in a country with a dictatorial, postcolonial past are now questioning the leader’s true motives.
In addition to her failure to address the Rohingya crisis, criticism against Suu Kyi targets her government’s persecution of Myanmar journalists who have spoken out not only about the crisis, but also against government activities more broadly. In December 2017, two Reuters journalists were arrested for covering an investigation into the killing of Rohingya men and boys in a village in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Three more journalists were arrested in November 2018 after publishing an article that criticized the financial management of Suu Kyi’s government. Suu Kyi has refused to address these arrests, and the journalists remain in jail.
Suu Kyi’s refusal to pardon the arrested journalists despite pressure from the international community adds to recent confusion around her image. She claims that the two Reuters journalists were not arrested for covering the Rakhine issue, but rather for breaking the Official Secrets Act. Created by the British colonial administration in 1923 to criminalize the sharing of certain information held by the government, the Official Secrets Act has been described by freedom of speech groups as a tool for the government to limit criticism. As of writing, Suu Kyi has not yet commented on the more recent arrests. Nevertheless, “all of this,” she claims, referring to the treatment of the jailed journalists, “is in accordance with due process.”
The response to Suu Kyi’s silence has been visceral and immediate: the U.S. Holocaust museum rescinded her human rights award, and Canada’s House of Commons voted unanimously to revoke her honorary Canadian citizenship. There have also been calls to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize, but no action has yet been taken.
The Voice of the West?
Before becoming the leader of Myanmar’s government, Aung San Suu Kyi endured fifteen years of house arrest, which began when she organized nonviolent protests against then-dictator U Ne Win over the killing of protestors in 1988. During this time, Western democratic governments, politicians, and journalists from around the world celebrated her as a stalwart of free speech and democracy. In addition to her numerous recognitions, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the Congressional Gold Medal (she was the first in U.S. history to receive the medal while imprisoned), and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, she received glowing features in the Western media, gracing Time magazine’s cover three times.
Suu Kyi is now the State Counsellor of Myanmar and Head of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD), a political party that she helped found in 1988. Although the NLD took the majority of the votes in the 1990 parliamentary elections, the ruling military junta did not recognize the win. Ever since, and throughout Suu Kyi’s house arrest and the arrests of various other members of the NLD over the decades, the party continued to push for democratic elections, garnering significant support from the public, both locally and internationally. Since its inception, the NLD was the major opposition party against the incumbent military government: it was instrumental in the military’s finally relenting power in 2011. With Suu Kyi’s growing recognition on the world stage, the NLD represented the kind of democratic government that many Western nations strive to install in nondemocratic, militaristic states.
Aung San Suu Kyi received degrees from the University of New Delhi in India and Oxford University in the United Kingdom. After her studies, she worked in the United Nations and spent a few years working towards a PhD in the University of London. She married a British academic and raised her children in the UK. In interviews, she is calm, composed, and eloquent. In short, Suu Kyi is no stranger to the narratives woven by and in the West.
Intentional or not, this worked to her advantage in her peaceful protest against U Ne Win’s government: she became the face of her country, and she put Myanmar on the map. In doing so, she became a Western resistance symbol against “non-Western” authoritarian powers. Given this history, her current inaction against the Rohingya feels like a betrayal to the global crowd that revered her as one of the most potent human rights figures of the modern day.
A Child of Myanmar, a child of the Military
For all the reverence that Suu Kyi has enjoyed in the West, her reputation there was built on a simplified and decontextualized understanding of her position. Journalists and political leaders have projected their own beliefs on Suu Kyi, painting her as more radically against the military regime than she actually is. Given the complexity of Myanmar’s history and Suu Kyi’s background and position, her silence should not come as a surprise.
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, Myanmar, like most former colonies, has been a fractured country. While ethnic divisions existed before modern borders were defined, the current ethnic conflict against the Rohingya can be traced directly to British rule. The British encouraged migration from the subcontinent into Myanmar, primarily from neighboring Bangladesh, to employ migrants as servants and construction workers, and to negate the power of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority—of which Aung San Suu Kyi and her family are a part. Inevitably, this built up resentment in the Buddhist majority against the Muslim newcomers, which has boiled over in the decades following the collapse of the British Empire.
Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was a military man who played a critical role in Myanmar’s independence and was consequently known as the “founder” of the country. He was also the founder of the national army, but was assassinated before Myanmar gained independence in 1948. Post-independence, Suu Kyi’s mother Khin Kyi served as the ambassador to India and Nepal. Born and raised within the Myanmar political establishment, Suu Kyi did not come from a revolutionary background. In fact, she was not involved directly in Myanmar politics until she returned to Myanmar in 1988, at the age of 43, to challenge the dictatorship.
Suu Kyi’s political family and upbringing are likely at the source of her nationalism and willingness to return to her country. Though her relationship with her father is not well documented, her commitment to Myanmar’s democracy is impressive given her long absence and late involvement in politics. When her husband, Michael Aris, an English scholar of Tibetan culture, was diagnosed with a terminal illness while she was under house arrest, Suu Kyi refused to leave Myanmar to visit him, as she knew that she would not be allowed back. He died without seeing her again.
Despite her committed opposition, though, it’s important to remember that Suu Kyi was raised sympathetic to Buddhist nationalism and the military. Suu Kyi herself grew up in a military family. The military was the driving force behind both her father’s independence efforts and the political climate she grew up in. As such, Suu Kyi’s resistance against the dictatorship was not resistance against the military as a whole. She consistently points out that the ruling NLD party has to work with the military to implement policies and changes, and that she welcomes this collaboration.
Even if Suu Kyi did have the will to limit military power, her position makes it practically impossible for her to enact serious reforms. As de facto head of government, formally the State Counsellor of Myanmar and Head of the NLD, Suu Kyi’s power is limited. She shares office with two other members of the NLD, President Win Myint and Vice President Henry Van Thio, and a Vice President from an opposition party, Myint Swe. The Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, maintains the right to elect 25% of the legislature and holds significant power over legislation. Suu Kyi and her fellow chair members need the armed forces’ approval to get anything done, and as such need to work closely with them.
Just as the NPD relies on cooperation with the military, the military benefits from keeping Suu Kyi in a central role. She is popular not only in Myanmar, but also internationally, and having her be a visible part of the government lends it legitimacy. In fact, she is likely known as the “de facto” head of government due to her elevated role in the international community and her immense popularity with the Myanmar people. It is to the military’s advantage, both locally and internationally, to have Suu Kyi in a prominent position.
While many have speculated that this delicate balance of power is keeping her from speaking out against the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi has other motivations to remain silent. For one, she remains popular within her country, especially amongst the Buddhist majority. To speak in defense of the Rohingya would jeopardize her approval among this majority, which makes up most of the ruling government and the people they represent. Taking such a position without the support of the rest of her government would be radical, and is not in her political interest. Given the historic ethnic tensions between the Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, Suu Kyi’s response—that the “Rohingya crisis is a long-standing issue [that] cannot be resolved overnight”—reflects the complexity both of the Rohingya’s history and her own political position.
A Cultivated Icon
During her 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi was largely cut off from interaction with the international community. As a result, the image that the world cultivated of her was shaped almost entirely by what those she inspired said about her—journalists, activists, Nobel Prize winners, celebrities, politicians, students. It is easy to make a Messiah of someone silent, even more so to project an ideal image onto a motherly, foreign woman who knows how to speak the language of the Westernized global community.
It is always disappointing to see our heroes fall short. It is especially so when someone as exalted as Suu Kyi seems to go against everything she stood for. Yet the root of this “failure” is the fact that the global community put her up against standards that were never her own. Aung San Suu Kyi stood for democracy and her people’s right to elect their own government: by defending the perceived interests of her Buddhist power base, she has remained loyal to those she undoubtedly sees as her people. Her failure to represent all the people living in her democracy is common to democracies all over the world, even and especially in the West.
The story of the Rohingya needs to be told, and freedom of the press is critical to keeping our institutional powers in check. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, let alone her condoning of a true humanitarian crisis, is indefensible. The global discourse around the Rohingya crisis also calls us to examine how quickly and ruthlessly we co-opt and then ostracize individual figures in our global order.
To focus solely on the effects of Suu Kyi’s actions (or lack thereof) ignores the vast complexity of Myanmar’s history and the issue at hand. The Rohingya crisis began and escalated as a direct result of British colonial rule. Villainizing Suu Kyi’s silence and implying that she could change the Myanmar government’s actions against the Rohingya is misguided, and oversimplifies a complex history. Yet, because she is the only figure from her country whose name is recognizable in all corners of the world, the international community demands that Suu Kyi answer for every issue concerning Myanmar according to their standards.
The story of a crisis, let alone a country, can never be distilled to a single narrative, however compelling, relatable, and invigorating that narrative may be. Too often, in the global media’s telling of non-Western narratives, the details get lost in favor of the larger, more resonant storyline. This is not only unfair, but also exacerbates a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” discouraging a holistic approach to headline news.
It is critical to take a step back and remember the nuances to every story, especially in today’s reactive news cycle. Aung San Suu Kyi has a global platform, and the world is listening. But the international community cannot listen only to what it wants to hear. It must give weight to the complexity of the history that Suu Kyi represents, and the impossibilities of the role that she has grown to fill. ❖