As the icon for Burmese democracy defends her military’s genocidal campaign against Rohingya Muslims, Liam Glen reflects on Suu Kyi’s rise to power and how political calculus led her to abandon her values.
In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in Myanmar for her activism against the country’s military junta. After 28 years, a stunning turn of events have led her to go The Hague and defend that same military from accusations of genocide against the Rohingya people.
This shift can be traced back to 2008 when the junta drafted a new constitution allowing for a democratic transition while still retaining a considerable degree of power.
However, it proved unable to stop a 2015 parliamentary victory by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which in turn appointed her to the position of State Counselor, making her the de facto head of government.
But this period also saw an escalation of violence in the western state of Rakhine. In the remote area, definitive information is hard to come by, but a mixture of interviews with survivors and satellite imagery tells a story of massacres against the region’s Rohingya Muslim minority and the destruction of their villages.
In 2018, it was estimated that at least 24,000 had been killed while 730,00 fled the country. Yet, amidst all of this, Suu Kyi has regurgitated military talking points downplaying the extent of the repression and blaming the Rohingya for initiating the violence.
While she has rightfully been condemned for her inaction, a closer look at the political situation reveals that Suu Kyi is not a monstrous as her strongest detractors claim. However, above all, she should not be excused for aiding and abetting these atrocities.
A Struggle for Power
Suu Kyi’s apologists, who include former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, emphasize her lack of agency. Myanmar’s constitution gives parliament little control over the military’s activities. Any attempt to speak out would threaten the precarious relationship between the civilian government and the military while doing little to actually help the situation.
Some have even claimed that behind the scenes, Suu Kyi has pressured the military to hold back, and the massacres would have been much worse without her intervention. But this speculation lacks evidence.
Critics dismiss these defenses of Suu Kyi. They point out that she has more influence over the military than it appears. The junta only democratized after heavy international pressure and sanctions. Allowing free elections to occur and a human rights icon like Suu Kyi take power did wonders for the country’s reputation.
If the State Counselor wanted to, she could have leveraged this. If she threatened to denounce the genocide, it would have created a crisis within the government. The result may have seen her removed from power, but it also could have saved lives.
Instead, she used her reputation to shield the military from scrutiny. She has gone to the media to deny the ongoing ethnic cleansing and defend the jailing of journalists covering the issue. Her office has repudiated accusations of rape against security forces. In a meeting with far-right Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, the two discussed topics including “continuously growing Muslim populations.”
Rather than taking a risk that would disrupt an ongoing genocide, she went down the road that would be safest for own political career.
No Tolerance for Genocide
There is no telling what Suu Kyi’s true motives are, or what actions she is taking behind closed doors. But even by the most charitable explanation, she is utterly indifferent to the mass murder of Muslims in the country’s periphery and will do nothing to help them if it would threaten her efforts to enact democracy in the core of Myanmar.
Leaders are often left in situations where they have no good options. But there is no such thing as having no choice whatsoever. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein pointed out in 2018, if she truly cared about the issue, Suu Kyi would have resigned rather than be complicit.
Compromise is an essential component of politics. To think that one can achieve every goal without making hard choices is naivety. To step down from public life and refuse to the play the game altogether is cowardice. But when something so dire as genocide is a factor, noncooperation is the only acceptable option.
After the Second World War, the international community knew it needed to prevent future atrocities like the Holocaust. One component of this is to call out crimes against humanity wherever and whenever they happen. No one can say that they were just following orders, or that they had no better option, as an excuse for aiding and abetting genocide.
Instead of following this precedent, Suu Kyi is contributing to an environment where mass murder is acceptable if stopping it would get in the way of one’s short-term goals. This is a mindset that must be nipped in the bud, for it will invariably have deadly consequences if it spreads. She may not be as culpable as the military, but Suu Kyi is just as deserving of sanction.