Aung San Suu Kyi support strong despite denunciations

Inaction during Rohingya crisis does little to change majority-Burmese sentiment towards Myanmar’s de facto leader.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi talks during a news conference with India''s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Naypyitaw
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been widely denounced amid the growing Rohingya crisis [Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

Yangon, Myanmar – Amid the buzzing of tourists and commerce at Yangon’s most popular bazaar, shoppers gently slide past one another beneath an array of dangling T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi accompanied by the words “our leader”.

Like much of Yangon, Bogyoke Market – named after her father and national hero, General Aung San – is a place where the Noble Peace Prize laureate continues to enjoy overwhelming support among the Burmese – the largest of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar.

This despite increasing condemnation from the international community over her handling of an emerging humanitarian crisis in western Rakhine State that over the past three weeks has seen more than 290,000 majority-Muslim ethnic Rohingya flee into Bangladesh, and hundreds killed in new clashes with the military.

For the Burmese, who endured nearly six decades of violent oppression under a socialist, military government until Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept into power during the country’s first largely free general elections in 2015, they are content to reap the fruits of an economic and social revival that has afforded them the chance to live out their lives in relative peace.

“Aung San Suu Kyi knows things and I’m very happy. She sees things clearly for every problem,” said 40-year-old antique vendor Zaw Myo Htun, who attributed much of Myanmar’s recent integration in Southeast Asia to her.

Like most of the dozen Burmese interviewed by Al Jazeera for this story, Zaw Myo was hesitant to speak about the Rohingya crisis, but nonetheless had every confidence Aung San Suu Kyi would handle it.

“Together they [Suu Kyi and the military] are doing the work,” he said.

A few stalls down, Thet Mhoo Ko Ko, 25, who helps run his family’s eyeglasses shop, said the blame for the Rohingya crisis lies more with the military. 

“I think the government has many heads. One problem is that she needs a little more time, and then she will be able to make things much better. The Rakhine [situation] is a problem and it is very worrying,” he said.

The Rohingya crisis has not dampened Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity at home. Indeed, support remains consistent throughout Myanmar, political analyst Yan Myo Thein told Al Jazeera.

“I believe that she is still highly popular among the majority of Myanmar citizens here. I think that her popularity in city areas among the intellectual strata was threatened a lot, but there is no other option or alternative to fill up the leadership vacuum in Myanmar’s democratisation apart from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.

READ MORE: Message to the world from Jashim, a Rohingya

Among those who have criticised or outright condemned Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction on Rakhine are numerous international organisations, human rights groups, the United Nations, high-profile US politicians such as Senator John McCain of Arizona, and more than a dozen Noble Peace Prize laureates, including Desmond Tutu.

“For most Burmese people, military dictatorship and totalitarianism are historical nightmares and the threat of a return of such nightmares [may] strengthen support toward Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, although they criticise and complain on the mismanagement, wrongdoings, weakness, and failures of the government,” said Yan Myo Thein.

The Rohingya have long been subjected to discrimination in the Buddhist-majority country. Prior to the clashes between the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the military that began on August 25 – when ARSA attacked an army base in the area – about 140,000 Rohingya were displaced during army operations that started in 2012.

According to several international groups, the blame for the situation prior to the latest violence was shared by both the military and powerful hardline nationalists, who for years enflamed anti-Muslim sentiment throughout Myanmar.

“Since the start of the political liberalisation in 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech, and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine State but across the country,” the International Crisis Group said in a report released last week.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi took power, the government has focused considerable effort in curtailing Buddhist nationalism and pushing the top Buddhist authority in Myanmar to ban such groups, yet those efforts have been largely ineffective “and have probably even enhanced them”, the report said.

But the issue runs far deeper, as anti-Muslim sentiment has progressively crept into many aspects of day-to-day life in Myanmar.

READ MORE: Message to the world from Mohammed, a Rohingya

Bowing to government pressure, some local newspapers, once heralded as the bullhorn of free speech, have abandoned the use of the word Rohingya, while state media now use the word “Bengali”, which is widely seen as derogatory.

“In 2012, people relied a lot on the newspapers for everything, but now is a very strange time and people don’t have trust, not even in the newspapers. That is why they base their beliefs on their own sentiment,” said Aung Soe Min, 47, a prominent gallery owner.

According to a survey released this month by Myanmar Survey Research under the auspices of the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), 38 percent of people surveyed in 15 states got most if not all of their news from the social media platform.

According to the same survey, 75 percent believed the country to be heading in the right direction.

Over the years, Buddhist nationalists have also used Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon as a staging ground for mass protests against the Muslim population.

Most recently on August 30, several hundred Buddhist nationalists, including monks, rallied in Yangon to urge stronger action against the Rohingya.

For the Burmese in Yangon, nearly 700km away from Rakhine, the problem is also one of reliable information as local media is seen by many as peddling their own agendas, while a majority of the population is now taking to notoriously untrustworthy social media accounts to find information.

In fact, little is actually known of the largely Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar, as the government chose to omit them from the country’s first nationwide census in 30 years that was published in May 2015.

‘Angry with her’

To make matters worse, Aung San Suu Kyi herself has remained largely silent on developments pertaining to the crisis as she continues to work side-by-side with a still-powerful military.

In a rare statement last week by her office, she chose to use the opportunity to blame “terrorists” for “a huge iceberg of misinformation” about the violence.

While most Burmese still laud Aung San Suu Kyi, some say it is time she began to use the voice that for three decades spoke out for human rights.

“I think she should speak up on the [Rohingya] issue and not be shy,” said Aung Zaw, editor and founder of The Irrawaddy newspaper.

Source: Al Jazeera