Haroon Atcha argues for a more critical appraisal of Myanmar’s de facto leader.
It’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic drop in public stature than the one Aung San Suu Kyi has experienced these past few weeks. No doubt due in large part to the overwhelming sense of betrayal felt by many, the Nobel Laureate has been harshly criticized for her country’s recent treatment of the Rohingya. Words like “Genocide” and “Ethnic Cleansing” have, to my mind, been aptly used to define the situation in Rakhine State. With hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, it’s difficult to imagine a more systematic and purposeful deprivation of life and human rights currently unfolding. In the bloody corpus of human suffering, this chapter should without a doubt serve as the stereotypical example of ethnic cleansing.
To a large extent, the international media agrees with that statement. And yet, though their denunciation of recent events has been forceful, the condemnation of Aung San Suu Kyi has proved a qualified one especially in more analytically minded circles. As it turns out, holding a Nobel prize inclines people, specifically those who consider themselves thoughtful, towards leniency. This is why you’ll hear arguments claiming that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has no good options, that she must appease the military leaders who are truly behind this massacre, that she risks damaging Myanmar’s fledgling democracy with too strong a denunciation of violence, and that the majority Bamar would turn against her should she speak out too strongly in defense of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s chief moral failing, by these accounts, is one of inaction. Her silence, rather than any active effort to tangibly harm people, is the main cause for disappointment.
These readings of the crisis in Myanmar are nonsense and should be absolutely rejected. They seek to excuse the behavior of a person actively complicit in the brutal persecution of an already marginalized minority by minimizing her role in that persecution. They attempt to obfuscate the moral repugnance of an action by arguing that complexity makes morally repugnant behavior understandable, if not necessary. They are wrong, not because they accept nuance and complexity as necessary to our understanding of a situation, but because they assume that nuance and complexity necessarily have an impact on the moral rectitude of a person’s behavior; that the moral failure of a person who peddled in the rhetoric of human rights for decades is excusable given difficult political circumstances.
Chief among the arguments made is that of Suu Kyi’s apparent inaction in the face of the Rohingyas’ plight. Though not explicitly stated, this line of argument infuses most coverage of recent events in Myanmar. The Washington Post, for instance, frames recent events from the perspective of Suu Kyi’s “Shameful Silence”. Leaving aside her very active efforts to deny international aid organizations access to Rakhine, this narrative is flawed even in terms of Suu Kyi’s speech. The myth of her “silence” fails when confronted with the fact of Suu Kyi’s very vigorous engagement in shaping the narrative of current events. Far from allowing events to play out, Suu Kyi has taken a special interest in spreading misinformation through her “Information Committee”, utilizing social media to pander to the more viciously racist aspects of her base. To imply Suu Kyi’s main failing is that of complacence is to ignore her very real efforts to justify and intensify persecution that she has long stoked.
In fact, her efforts to justify these military crackdowns shatter another commonly stated excuse: that her silence is an effort to secure her ethnically Bamar base. This excuse fails on two levels. First, one need only look at the response Suu Kyi has received from the Bamar majority to see that her main interest is not in maintaining her support but in pandering to her base. In light of recent events in Rakhine, Suu Kyi has enjoyed a veritable groundswell of support unmatched by any other time save the immediate aftermath of the 2016 democratic elections. To posit that her Bamar base would somehow abandon her should she do anything but reinforce that group’s most vicious voices is absurd in that it assumes not only that her support with them could wane significantly in the first place, but that her characterization of the Rohingya addresses the chief criticisms of the NLD the Bamar have repeatedly expressed.
The NLD has been the target of serious and persistent criticisms since its rise to power, namely for its inability to deliver on certain economic promises but Suu Kyi’s approval among the Bamar has gone up dramatically since the events in Rakhine began, not down. She isn’t fighting for the support of the Bamar; that would entail taking seriously the concerns they’ve repeatedly voiced over the NLD’s economic policy failures and their concerns over ethnic cooperation. Instead, Suu Kyi enjoys a monopoly of Bamar support; her active demonization of the Rohingya serving as a balm, a distraction from the concerns her base have repeatedly voiced. Similar to right-leaning nationalists world-wide, Suu Kyi has learned that the easiest way to maintain (or gain) power is to concoct a group to oppose. What migrants are to the European far-right, the Rohingya are to Suu Kyi: an easily demonized demographic that, despite having practically no impact on the livelihood of her base, serves as useful bogeymen and effigies to burn, in this case, literally. Ultimately, Suu Kyi’s popularity is legendarily high among the Bamar to the extent that one is hard pressed to imagine any situation in which her base would abandon her.
But this narrative fails on an even more fundamental level. It completely contradicts the narrative built up around Suu Kyi over the past several decades in which she served as the singular personality around which all democratic activity within Myanmar was organized. This supremely talented icon was somehow charismatic enough to have maintained her support among the people in light of decades of military persecution, and yet for some unexplained reason, at this moment, her charisma has failed her to the extent that she needs to worry about her supporters abandoning her en masse. It at once mythologizes her past, deifying her former ability to evoke the purest intentions among those she leads, while portraying her at present as the poor victim of a pernicious crowd. She was charismatic enough to lead her country into democracy but now that famous charisma has somehow vanished into thin air. Suu Kyi does indeed enjoy a cult of personality in Myanmar; the failure of observers who cite her support among the Bamar as a mediating factor lies in the assumption that this legendary charisma cannot be utilized to at least marginally drag the population she leads away from genocide.
The final, and most obvious, tactic utilized by Suu Kyi’s (explicit and implicit) apologists is to shift the blame entirely onto the military or to minimize Suu Kyi’s complicity by implying that her actions are in the interest of maintaining democracy. There is no doubt that the military holds an inordinate amount of power over the country and that it is in large part responsible for the persecution of the Rohingya. But to state that Suu Kyi is entirely helpless to criticize this as it may lead to the overthrow of her democracy is absurd. At its most basic level this argument rests on the assumption that a murderous democracy is preferable to a peaceful dictatorship. That it is better to have a democratically elected leader who will stoke her people into violence than a dictatorship that maintains peace; that democracy as an end unto itself, is preferable to any other type of government no matter the cost in blood. Never mind the fact that Suu Kyi holds inordinate powers of influence, or that she acts as the de facto leader of the country, that she leads a democracy is enough to excuse her negligence.
Suu Kyi’s greatest talent as a politician is laid bare in the way we talk about her failings. She is capable of at once placing herself at the locus of power while at the same time abdicating any responsibility that may attend that position; to an extent, people buy it. Look no further than her current role as “State Counsellor” for proof: an unelected position created specifically for her in which she serves as the de facto leader of the country. She has, in essence, seized all levers of power available to her while insulating herself from any kind of meaningful criticism or accountability. Should anyone comment on her failings, her supporters need only point out that she is not really in charge and that she’s not actually president. Placing herself in our minds (especially Western ones) as a paragon of virtue, she has excelled in cloaking herself in the language of human rights while practicing something else entirely. She has, in the international community, made herself appear helpless in the face of obstacles she has long since overcome or learned to actively manage.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s sins extend far beyond silence; they are active in nature and no amount of complexity of circumstance or purposeful obfuscation can wash them away. They should be laid bare in unflinching detail; made all the more nauseating by the acknowledgement of the circumstances from which they were born. Our current narrative surrounding her and the unfolding tragedy in Rakhine is reflective of the leniency we afford those who know how to speak the language of human rights. We take icons and symbols at their word; believe them when they say there are mediating circumstances. But Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer a symbol, she is a politician. Politicians deserve skepticism; they deserve criticism; they deserve to be held accountable. Once, Aung San Suu Kyi knew how to make difficult decisions; how to sacrifice. It would seem that time has long since passed. Rakhine is a place now mired in the kind of systematic violence that should turn the stomach of any decent person. It’s time we stop minimizing Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in this tragedy and acknowledge, without qualification, her role in perpetuating it.
Haroon Atcha is a PhD Student of Political Science at Arizona State University. His research interests include Religion, Ethnic Identity, and Citizenship, especially as they relate to Southeast Asia and Myanmar. He is further interested in leveraging social media data to explore macro and micro level trends in otherwise data-poor environments.