In the 1990s, when it was fashionable to defend the rights of repressed Buddhist women, activists worldwide hailed the young, attractive Aung San Suu Kyi as an Angel of Democracy resisting the evil Burmese generals. She was the Malala Yousafzai of her day.
But now, when media portray Muslims as the leading victims of conflicts around the world, many of these same activists and ideologues are scorning Suu Kyi, a 72-year old matron dealing with the realities of power.
They claim that Suu Kyi, who was elected nominal leader of Myanmar after more than a decade under house arrest, has changed.
Political fashion has changed, not Suu Kyi.
She’s still fighting for justice, freedom and development in one of the world’s poorest nations. Yet many have forgotten the bigger picture to focus on the plight of the Rohingya fleeing the tip of Rakhine state, a tiny part of Myanmar, into neighboring Bangladesh.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai, Justin Trudeau and many world leaders and rights groups are pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi over her muted response to what United Nations leaders call a humanitarian “catastrophe” and “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim Rohingyas.
More than 400,000 signed a Change.org petition to take back Suu Kyi’s 1991 Nobel peace prize, and 20,000 want her honorary Canadian citizenship revoked.
Do they understand Myanmar’s poverty, politics and decades of military rule and ethnic violence better than Suu Kyi does?
Of course not, and they should stop smearing a misunderstood woman who, like millions of minorities, faces persecution by Myanmar’s generals.
Instead of placating foreigners, Suu Kyi was elected to serve her constituents, who have endured decades of disasters, hardcore poverty, repression and injustice. These people — of all ethnic stripes — also see themselves as victims. Suu Kyi cannot ignore the fact that many of her voters post videos online accusing Rohingya Muslims of taking scarce land and resources from Buddhists, beheading monks, raping women and sparking clashes with victims on all sides.
Suu Kyi, who skipped the UN’s General Assembly, said on Facebook that her government was “defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible.” She decried those who spread “fake information” to promote “the interests of terrorists” such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, blamed for killing police and border officers last month.
She’s also dealing with a military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who vowed to never let “Bengali terrorists” repeat 1940s atrocities in Rakhine, a state with a porous border next to 160 million Muslims in Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi doesn’t have the powers enjoyed by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accuses Myanmar of “genocide”, or Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, derided for praising Cuba’s repressive dictator Fidel Castro.
Myanmar’s constitution forbids Suu Kyi, who won elections in 1990 and 2015, to become president because she married a British citizen. She can’t change the constitution because the army has a de facto veto in Parliament and control over police, borders and most bureaucrats.
Ahead of a papal visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh in November, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, the Archbishop of Yangon, warns that Suu Kyi is “walking a tight-rope” and “dark forces are clamoring for return to army rule.”
“Stigmatising Aung San Suu Kyi and attacking her through media is not a long term solution. A false step will see her out of government and that would be the end of any dream of democracy. We should always remember the army took back democracy three times in the history of Myanmar.”
Suu Kyi isn’t the worst player in this crisis. Bangladesh, the historic origin of Rohingya, has threatened to ship refugees to a flood-prone island notorious for pirates. Militant groups in Bangladesh and elsewhere want to arm Rohingya for jihad. Indonesia, a majority Muslim nation, doesn’t want 400,000 Rohingya, and Sri Lanka and India also don’t want them. Thailand and Malaysia haven’t done enough about smugglers accused of rape, murder and extortion.
Buddhist concerns about Islamic extremism are rising amid Al-Qaeda’s call on Islamic radicals from across Asia to infiltrate and punish Myanmar. Can we really expect Suu Kyi, who spent most of the 1990s under house arrest for marrying a foreigner, to sympathize with chauvinists who forbid women to pray in mosques or marry non-Muslims?
Trudeau, who claims to be a feminist, hasn’t condemned Islamic fascists in Myanmar nor sanctioned Canadian miners doing business with corrupt generals.
After decades of war, Suu Kyi can’t turn Myanmar overnight into a Trudeau-style “post-nation” where everyone is a rainbow. Myanmar faces bigger challenges than Obama-era identity politics. Millions in Myanmar lack proper roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, water and sanitation. Thus, when asked about Rohingya, Suu Kyi emphasizes government efforts to improve living conditions for everyone.
The Rohingya crisis is best understood — and resolved — within the wider goal of achieving more justice and development in Myanmar and the region as a whole. To influence positive change and keep Myanmar out of civil war, activists are better dealing with Suu Kyi than a military junta without her. It’s possible to condemn or sanction Myanmar’s military, and defend the rights of Rohingya and other minorities, without ruining the legacy of Asia’s most heroic woman. Silent or complicit, she’s still the best option.
(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson, Globalite Media. Johnson has visited Myanmar more than 10 times since 1988).