Aung San Suu Kyi: what has happened to Myanmar's icon of morality?

Failure of Nobel prize winner to condemn brutal military campaign against Rohingya Muslims places the Lady at centre of global ire

When news came in early on the morning of 25 August that militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) had attacked police posts in northern Rakhine state, killing 12 people and ushering in a massive army crackdown, it did not take long for Myanmar’s new “information committee” to swing into action.

Myanmar has had other such committees in its history, as authoritarian rulers have sought to disseminate the truth as they saw it, as opposed to the version propagated by so-called enemies of the state. This one, a joint civil-military body, responded from an official Facebook page with breathless updates about “extremist Bengali terrorists”, alongside images of mangled corpses and World Food Programme biscuits touted as proof of aid workers abetting militants.

Humanitarian organisations said the statements – attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi – were putting the lives of aid workers in danger. Aid was halted. Bangladesh protested against the use of the word “Bengali”, used to imply Rohingya Muslims are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and summoned the Myanmar ambassador in Dhaka, according to a foreign office source. The word was scrubbed as the officially sanctioned term for the militants.

And then the words “state counsellor” – the Nobel laureate’s official government title – were quietly dropped from the name of the Facebook page. The move, made as allegations of a brutal army crackdown on the Arsa insurgency were mounting, raised the question: where is Aung San Suu Kyi?

‘Siege mentality’

After decades of adulation, the longtime political prisoner known as the Lady now finds herself at the centre of global ire. Her face again adorns placards at protests across the globe but this time the chants are angry. An attempt to revoke her Nobel peace prize has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.

The source of the anger is a brutal military campaign, initially against the Rohingya Muslim militancy, but which has, according to the latest United Nations estimates, forced some 270,000 persecuted Rohingya out of Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine state into Bangladesh over the past two weeks. On Monday the UN said Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya was tantamount to “ethnic cleansing”.

As the numbers grow and the crackdown looks increasingly like a purge of a loathed and stateless ethnic group, a chorus of international figures and fellow Nobel prize winners have agitated for a condemnation from Aung San Suu Kyi that has not arrived.

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” the South African social rights activist and fellow Nobel peace prize winner Desmond Tutu wrote.

But diplomats and analysts told the Guardian that the state counsellor and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party have publicly and privately aligned themselves with the army that harangued and imprisoned them for half a century.

Some say the issue unites the country so completely that she has no choice but to agree. Others see her as a deeply moral figure hamstrung by the country’s fragile political setup, which reserves great power for the military. Others see a stubborn leader who is increasingly isolated from the western allies who once lauded and now castigate her.

The government is “panicking”, said one diplomat who like others spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a siege mentality,” the envoy said. “[Aung San Suu Kyi] feels attacked and she’s defending her country.”

As the crisis grew, it emerged on Wednesday that Aung San Suu Kyi would not attend the United Nations General Assembly later this month and would send the country’s vice president instead.

‘Iceberg of misinformation’

In newly quasi-democratic Myanmar the crisis has brought about a return to the rhetoric of the junta, early subscribers to the “fake news” defence, who derided western broadcasters such as the Voice of America and the BBC as “sky-full of liars”.

Statements released by the army and the civilian government have been almost identical. “In view of how little agreement there is between the two principals – the military and Daw Suu – it is surprising how similar their messages are [on Rakhine],” said another Yangon-based diplomat.

Some still insist that the people close to and appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi, some of whom are former military, do not wholly represent her.

Rohingya refugees sit under trees in a forest during hot weather in Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photograph: Abir Abdullah/EPA

“To what extent they speak for her and the government and to what extent they are imposing the military’s agenda on her is unclear,” said Benedict Rogers, east Asia team leader with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and a longtime Myanmar specialist. “One also has to ask what information is being given, how is she being briefed and what misinformation is the army providing to her.”

Others, though, see her as too much of a micro-manager to relinquish control over communications.

And while she has sought to distance herself from some of the most explosive rhetoric, she has doubled down elsewhere. In a phone call to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, she blamed “terrorists” for creating a “huge iceberg of misinformation”. Turkey’s deputy prime minister had tweeted some of many fake photos claiming to be from Rakhine.

There is a prevailing view that Aung San Suu Kyi, even if she wanted to, could not speak up for the Rohingya without risking the stability of the country. “Aung San Suu Kyi has to walk a very fine tightrope given the Myanmar military still has a very influential position within the country,” said Shyam Saran, former chief of the Indian foreign service and an ambassador to Myanmar in the 1990s.

And domestically the issue is clear-cut. Hatred of the Rohingya is the one thing that unites almost everyone in Myanmar, said another diplomat: “The extremist Buddhists, the masses, the army, and even the NLD.”

Nyan Win, a party spokesman and Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal lawyer, voiced the views of many in Myanmar when he told Radio Free Asia: “I think everyone knows the Bengali. There are no facial features like Bengalis’ in our Myanmar, nowhere in the country.”

Expanding on that in an interview with the Guardian, he said: “They are not Myanmar citizens. They are foreigners.”

‘The best there is in the country’

Most diplomats believe Aung San Suu Kyi to be more sympathetic than most in her party. She has stressed to ambassadors her resolve to sort out the problems in Rakhine state and has previously used the contentious word “Rohingya”, which now barely any politician will use.

“She is the best there is in the country to be honest,” said the former senior western diplomat stationed in Myanmar. “Yes, we should hold her to a higher standard, but we do have to understand the headwinds against her.”

But there is a growing sense of a schism between Aung San Suu Kyi and her former western allies over the issue.

A resolution by the UN human rights council earlier this year to send an international fact-finding mission to Myanmar further “soured’ relations, said the former senior western envoy stationed in Myanmar. “I think she lost trust in our ability to help.”

A meeting between Yangon-based ambassadors and her close ally Kyaw Tin Swe last week, at which the allegations against aid workers were discussed as well as plans to restore humanitarian access, but without the domestically unpopular UN, was tense, according to diplomats.

“I think we’re on the outs,” said one. “We’re increasingly seen as the enemy.”

Hope for a resolution to the escalating crisis rests largely with Asian leaders. Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi flew to Myanmar last week to urge the authorities to halt the violence.

For the tens of thousands of Rohingya sleeping in squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh, it will be actions and not words that count.

“[Aung San Suu Kyi] is a respected person,” said Kyaw Win, a Rohingya politician. “We don’t dare to criticise, to say that she’s right or wrong. We are just hoping that she’s going to do something good.”

Michael Safi contributed reporting from Delhi and Cape Win Diamond contributed reporting from Yangon.


Poppy McPherson in Yangon

The GuardianTramp

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