Myanmar’s fallen hero: the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi

Under her rule Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, are fleeing to Bangladesh.

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“If I am asked why I am fighting for democracy in Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi said in her Nobel lecture on 16 June 2012, “it is because I believe that democratic institutions and practices are necessary for the guarantee of human rights.”

Suu Kyi, dressed in dark purple, was delivering the lecture 21 years late. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest, separated from her family thousands of miles away in the UK. Between those two dates, Suu Kyi became one of the world’s most celebrated dissidents. In 2006, a New Statesman readers’ poll named her the greatest “hero of our time”; Suu Kyi received three times as many nominations as the second-placed Nelson Mandela. Celebrities such as David Beckham demanded her release. When it came, in 2010, world leaders including Barack Obama lined up to meet her.

But now Suu Kyi faces accusations of villainy. Under her rule, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, are fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. What is happening has been called ethnic cleansing, or even genocide. Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said that “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945, months after her father, Aung San, a general known today as “the Father of the Nation”, drove the Japanese out of Burma. Aung San’s achievements shaped his daughter’s beliefs, yet she barely knew him. He was assassinated when she was two years old.

Suu Kyi’s life then took a more conventional turn. She studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, married the British academic Michael Aris and became a housewife. Photographs from this period show her picnicking in Scotland, or barbecuing on the Norfolk Broads. She had, however, not forgotten her past. Suu Kyi told her husband that if her country ever needed her, she would return.

One evening in 1988, Suu Kyi received a phone call informing her that her mother had suffered a stroke. She flew to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, expecting to care for her. The hospital was full of students injured in clashes with the military. Suu Kyi agreed to lend her name to a movement for democracy.

It was a fateful decision. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won the 1990 general election. At the time, she was already under house arrest. During her long period of confinement, she could only stare out over Yangon’s Inya Lake, and the public, on the far shore, could only gaze at the walls that contained her.

Meanwhile, her sons grew up without their mother. In 1997, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Suu Kyi could have flown to Britain to say her farewells and comfort her sons, but she knew that she would not be allowed back into Myanmar. So she recorded a farewell film at the British embassy and stayed where she was.

By 2012, when Suu Kyi gave her belated Nobel Prize speech, it seemed that her sacrifices had been vindicated. She had been freed two years earlier, at the age of 65. She appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs (selecting a song about her father, “Asia’s Hero General Aung San”). But the trouble was already beginning. In 2012, there were conflicts in the state of Rakhine, western Myanmar, between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims.

Suu Kyi’s party won the 2015 election, with her as the de facto president (she is constitutionally banned from the role because her sons are British). The same year, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled their homes. In 2016, the Myanmar army began a military crackdown against them. Interrogated on the subject by a less jovial BBC interviewer, Mishal Husain, Suu Kyi was heard to complain afterwards that no one told her she would be interviewed “by a Muslim”.

Suu Kyi’s silence on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims has caused consternation among Western liberals. (At my old school, James Gillespie’s in Edinburgh, one of the houses was named “Kyi” in her honour; former pupils now question the association.) But perhaps Suu Kyi’s priorities were clear all along. According to Matthew Walton, a senior research fellow in Burmese studies at Oxford, Suu Kyi’s concept of democracy has always been couched in specifically Buddhist ideals. Nor does she face pressure from voters. Poppy McPherson, a journalist who has spent several years reporting from Myanmar, told me that the Buddhist majority views the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants, even though they have been there for generations.

Protests against Myanmar are spreading throughout the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s administration prefers to talk about Rohingya “terrorists” rather than the thousands being terrorised. The one-time British housewife is steering Myanmar to her own definition of democracy. Perhaps some of her former foreign admirers wish that she would go back to meditating in a house behind a high wall.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article appears in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move