Aung San Suu Kyi’s shaky moral high ground

Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya does not necessarily reflect a cold heart, but shows that she has become a politician.

Much has been said about Suu Kyi's stance on the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by Myanmar [EPA]

Washington’s ambassador to Myanmar hinted last week that the US may have a new foe in the reforming dictatorship. Derek Mitchell, whose appointment this year marked a significant warming of relations between the two countries, spoke of the vile fallout from sectarian unrest in June that has overshadowed Myanmar’s reform efforts.

Challenges to the establishment of a democracy there are now “broader than what our traditional concern is, which is the system, or the government, or the military”, Mitchell told the Wall Street Journal. Pointing a finger at the volley of abuse aimed at the Rohingya minority, who were pitted against Rakhine Buddhists in protracted rioting, Mitchell explained that the job of diplomacy had now become more complicated.

“This had to do with the deep-seated intolerance that seemed to be within the society writ large. So I think that’s where the deep disappointment came. And it creates a division between them and us to a degree.”

Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya

The “them” in question is the feted democrats whose decades-long struggle for equality in Myanmar had won them international admiration. But their reputation has begun to unravel over the past three months as they became party to a campaign of vilification against the stateless Rohingya, the Muslim untermensch of western Myanmar whose own harrowing story was forever peripheral to the wider narrative of Myanmar’s quest for democracy. 

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The “them”, however, must also include Aung San Suu Kyi, who will visit the US in the coming weeks to accept a belated Global Citizen Award and talk politics with top Washington officials. Much has been said about her stance on the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by the Myanmar government and are considered one of the most persecuted minorities in Southeast Asia. Their plight appears, on the surface at least, extraneous to Suu Kyi’s vision of a democracy, and she refuses to speak their name in public.

That may sound like a strong charge, but she has consistently shirked questioning on her position. While her silence on the Rohingya does not necessarily reflect a cold heart, it does show that she has become a politician. With that too, she becomes a figurehead to be challenged like any politician should be, but the air of sacrosanctity surrounding her remains, and continues to be unhelpful. In its place, consistency should be applied – last week Myanmar activists decried new media laws that bar criticism of the country’s political machine, of which she is now a part of. The democrats who have fought for free media, but attacked those who challenge Suu Kyi, should recognise this contradiction. 

What lies behind her silence? When pressed on the subject in the wake of the June rioting, she talked of a need to “clarify” citizenship laws and urged the government to grant equal rights to “all ethnic minorities”. It was deliberately vague and diversionary – Rohingya are not considered an ethnic minority by the powers that be in Myanmar, meaning she quietly avoided angering her supporters. 

Essentially, if she does take the moral high ground and pushes for citizenship for the Rohingya, she risks losing a huge number of votes come 2015. Not only will she upset the Rakhine population who reluctantly share the volatile western state with the Muslim minority, but also further inland and abroad. Many inexplicably see the Rohingya – quarantined though they are in a pocket of coastline on the periphery of Myanmar – as a threat to their wellbeing and allege they are illegal Bengali immigrants, and even terrorists.

There is also the very real danger that with an issue so hot-blooded as the fate of the Rohingya, she could lose chunks of her support base to military hardliners who oppose granting the Rohingya citizenship, regardless of whether their other policies impede democratic progress or not. The intensity of hostility towards the minority group has been so fierce as to make this a distinct possibility.

Consequently, an argument could be made that Suu Kyi is pushing for the “greater common good” – i.e., biding her time until 2015 when she can cement more progressive policies – but many, myself included, will claim the means do not justify the ends. Indeed, she touched on that broader philosophy herself in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in June, when she spoke of the tens of thousands of Kachin refugees lacking aid in Myanmar’s north: “Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering?” Do the benefits of silence then outweigh the political costs of placing demands on the future of the Rohingya? Her reluctance to speak out provides something of clue to that.

Sein’s record on the Rohingya

Now contrast Suu Kyi with President Thein Sein, a man who during his term as prime minister under Myanmar’s former junta was party to attempts to cleanse the ethnically diverse border regions of “the other”. In a report for parliament this week, and seen by AFP, he writes: “Political parties, some monks and some individuals are increasing the ethnic hatred [towards Rohingya]. They even approach and lobby both the domestic and overseas Rakhine community.” 

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To be sure, Thein Sein’s record on the Rohingya is far from exemplary – in July, he lobbied the UN to help resettle all 800,000-odd Rohingya living in Rakhine state abroad, a move that drew accusations that he was attempting a mass deportation. One can also make the argument that he is buying international support and has otherwise shown apathy towards ethnic minorities. Regardless, however, this report goes further than any politician in Myanmar has so far done by highlighting a current of animosity and a concerted attempt by members of the Buddhist community, including the revered monks, to kindle enmity. 

This is much needed. Observers who attempted the same were attacked by many in the pro-democracy movement, while foreigners were branded “neo-colonialists” and told to keep their noses out. Not surprisingly, the leading Rakhine political party, whose leader Dr Aye Maung recently responded to the “trespassing” Rohingya with calls for Burma “to be like Israel”, will challenge the report.

Thein Sein isn’t playing the same political game as Suu Kyi, given he is already in office and probably doesn’t want to stay on beyond 2015. He also knows that the unrest does nothing to help Myanmar’s image as an emerging hotspot for international business, and needs to demonstrate a degree of attentiveness to the situation.

But the contrast between his statement and Suu Kyi’s exemplifies the transformation she has undergone since being elected to parliament and the bind she is now in. Hillary Clinton has already lamented the difficulties for the Nobel Peace Laureate in “balancing ideals and aspirations” now she is a politician. Peter Popham, a journalist and biographer of Suu Kyi, eloquently noted last week that, “it is only when you are wandering in the wilderness of dissent that you can be everybody’s darling”.

Now with that wilderness receding behind her, Suu Kyi must answer to the demands that accompany her ascent to parliament, and possibly the top seat in three years. Although one can fully understand why Myanma put so much faith in her during the years of trickery and abuse by the junta, there are few things more dangerous than a deified politician in whose inviolable hands lay key decisions about the future of a country and its people. The taboo surrounding criticism of her must be dispelled.

Her visit to the US next month may be an opportunity for international figureheads like Clinton to constructively press Suu Kyi on the Rohingya issue; to help her find a platform in that fraught middle ground between ideals and aspirations on which Suu Kyi can return to the values she has espoused over the past 24 years. Failure to do so could further blur an increasingly unclear line between Myanmar’s heroes and villains. 

Francis Wade is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Follow him on Twitter: @Francis_Wade