Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall

Once revered as a human rights icon, Burmese leader faces criticism for her crass politicking


Soe Zeya Tun /Reuters

In the inevitable comparisons that followed Nelson Mandela’s death, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s celebrated democracy leader, did not come off well. Mandela made the transition from inmate to statesman look effortless and fated, a credit to South Africa. Suu Kyi has wobbled badly. Mandela helped end apartheid; she watched as de facto apartheid took hold, segregating Muslim from Buddhist on Burma’s troubled west coast.

Once a human rights icon whose determination in the face of a brutal dictatorship won her the Nobel Peace Prize and the adulation of crowds in Rangoon, the city of her birth, and abroad, where she spent much of her life, she’s now become something crass—a politician, and not a particularly good one. As the country changes fast, so are perceptions of its freedom fighter, whose name for years could not be uttered in public, and who therefore became, simply, “the Lady.” It turns out Suu Kyi is no Mandela. Given what she’s willing to do in the name of politics, she is no lady, either.

The intensity and openness with which critics now attack her reflects growing chatter in Naypyidaw, the strange new capital built in the jungle. Those who have worked with Suu Kyi describe a stubborn, high-handed, mercurial autocrat who has failed to cobble together the coalition she needs to change the constitution, which contains a provision apparently designed specifically to make her ineligible, as the widow of a foreigner and the mother of two others, for the presidency.

Everywhere she goes, Suu Kyi stumps for an amendment, though the process is so cumbersome it’s unlikely to happen before the general elections in 2015, the year she turns 70. That will likely be her last shot at the presidency. She even lectured a recent conference of foreign business people about how they should agitate for the alteration, generating bewilderment among those present. State Department officials complain privately of her conduct, but U.S. lawmakers, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, are infatuated, and call her directly for advice on how to handle Burma policy. Ottawa, say those in a position to know, is similarly in awe.

Last week, she suggested the party she helped found, the National League for Democracy, might boycott the upcoming elections in the absence of constitutional change, as it did in 2010. The party later said she’d been taken out of context. “She’ll tell you if you sit down with her, she’ll tell diplomats and other people, ‘I’m the Opposition leader, and it’s my responsibility to criticize government,’” says a political analyst based in Rangoon, the country’s commercial capital. “She’s playing the role and she knows that. But the way she’s doing it is where some people are starting to see cracks.” Observers say she has allowed the NLD to grow moribund. There is no heir apparent. “She’s running that party out of her hip pocket, single-handedly, and you can’t do that,” says Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner and activist.

She’s still an icon, her country’s brand. The military junta that ruled the country with ruthless self-containment for 50 years, and that released her in 2010 after years of house arrest, has found in Suu Kyi a public-relations instrument without parallel. Each of her appearances amplifies anew the government’s commitment to reform, despite a constitution that guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in parliament, land grabs, cronyism and, according to U.S. government officials, ongoing, worrisome links to North Korea.

Yet Burma remains a basket case. It is the second-poorest country in Asia (after Afghanistan) and the world’s second-largest producer of opium (again, after Afghanistan). In the silhouette of sunset, Rangoon’s old district is a place of Havisham beauty, where the poor live like cave dwellers in the ruins of the colonial past. Yet foreign investment is exploding and the city demands some of the highest commercial real estate rates in Southeast Asia.

Burma is also home to what many call the longest-running civil war on the planet, involving myriad armed ethnic militias with acronymic names frequently compared to a spoonful of alphabet soup. That conflict, the cause of serious human rights concerns in its own right, has over the past year and a half been joined by an outbreak of deadly sectarian violence pitting Buddhists against Muslims. At first the clashes remained limited to Rakhine State, in west Burma, where there has long been friction between Buddhists and the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim group the government says does not belong despite its long history in the country. This year the violence, characterized by Rwanda-like machete rampages, spread through the country.

More than 250 people have died in the violence, and more than 100,000 have been displaced, the vast majority in both cases Muslim. Human Rights Watch calls the situation in Rakhine “ethnic cleansing.” There is worry that the strict controls placed on the Rohingyas will evolve into permanent segregation. Thuggish elements within Burma’s hugely influential priesthood, meanwhile, have promoted an odd Buddhist chauvinism, supporting, among other things, a boycott of Muslim businesses.

It is Suu Kyi’s reaction to these sectarian clashes that’s begun to erode her reputation abroad. To the surprise of many, she’s stopped short of condemning the violence, instead making a series of anodyne statements extolling the virtues of “rule of law,” and following a strict program of assigning blame equally to Buddhists and Muslims. A recent New York Times editorial described her as “tragically silent” on the problem. Others go further. “Some of her speeches have the intellectual depth of a Chinese fortune cookie,” says David Mathieson, the Human Rights Watch representative in Burma.

Mathieson calls the string of Muslim refugee camps outside the Rakhine capital, Sittwe, an “archipelago of misery.” Many see no alternative but to flee by boat—a perilous journey. Muslims in the region and around the world are watching. Saudi Arabia, which recently began cracking down on foreign labour, has reportedly exempted two groups from immigration scrutiny on the grounds that they are refugees—Palestinians and Burmese Muslims.

Thida Latt, a 35-year-old substitute teacher and a program manager with the MMSY Foundation, a Rangoon-based Muslim youth group, told
Maclean’s of a mother who entered her classroom demanding that her six-year-old daughter be spared sitting next to a kalar, a racial slur for Muslims that goes back to the country’s colonial past. Such things never happened when she was a girl, she says. She ignored the request. “I’m not satisfied by Aung San Suu Kyi,” she says. “I expected her to speak out.”

It is thought that Suu Kyi’s reticence is based on a desire to maintain a broad base of support for the NLD in Burma, where distrust of Muslims is rampant. Yet she remains enormously popular with the masses, and has vast resources of political capital. Many believe she could afford to spend some on the country’s Muslims, which amount to about five per cent of the population.

Instead she has supported other unpopular causes, such as a copper mine once co-owned by Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines, and still backed by a military-controlled Burmese company. Her endorsement may be one way of showing the military her willingness to play ball. For it is with the military, whether or not the constitution gets changed, that she will have to work—in the event she cannot be president, perhaps in a power-sharing arrangement. “It is a cold, calculated political approach,” Mathieson says. “Everyone’s kind of realizing she’s a petulant politician.”

That interpretation of her conduct throws into question the genuineness of her past commitments. “It looks like human rights was a tool used by both Aung San Suu Kyi and all the opposition to get international support and sanctions during the military regime,” says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a humanitarian group that works for Rohingya rights. “Suddenly now the talk is no longer about human rights—which is a bit sad.”

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall

  1. This women shook a lot of hands with world leaders to make change to her country, where are the leaders now that shook her hand ? I think our dear leader John Baird went to the gunnels to support this lady. Again, it sounds like the harper government are in over their heads.

    • Harper’s fault! He’s killing muslims in Burma! Behead him now!

  2. The writer of this article made a lot of factual errors.

    1. Aung San Suu Kyi condemned the violence.

    2. The Rohingya issue is not an one-sided affair. Both Rakhines and Rohingyas are aggressors and victims.

    3. Aung San Suu Kyi has never been a human rights icon in the broadest sense as the western press described her. She has been a leader who is trying to overthrow the dictatorship, all along.

    4. The Rohingya problem is a pre-existing problem even when the press was praising her. ( Why didn’t they do anything about it back then? )

    5. Suu Kyi does not need to use the Rohingya issue to bolster her political support. She is hugely popular in Burma, regardless.

    The followings are general facts about the Rohingyas.

    Facts: 1. Rohingyas killed as many local Rakhines as Rakhines killed
    them. It’s a conflict between two groups. Rohingyas alone are not victims. Both sides are victims.

    2. Rohingyas invented “suicide burning of their houses” (i.e. They
    burned their own houses during the conflicts.) That phenomenon was
    motivated by a few factors. The number one reason is that they burned
    their houses, hoping that the fire would get rid of the local ethnic
    Rakhines’ houses (taking advantage of the country’s poor fire
    departments). The second reason is that if they become homeless, they
    are expecting relocation to third countries as refugees (local clerics
    miscalculated on this one). The third reason is that their houses are
    relatively cheap (bamboo huts mostly). So they did not really care that
    they lost their houses. They could afford to lose it. It was a
    calculated risk taking.

    3. Rohingyas started this conflict, motivated by Islamic ideas of world domination (crazy as it sounds, it is indeed the case.).

    4. Local ethic Rakhines are not burmeses. They feel threatened by Rohingyas who are trying to claim their land.

    5. In many parts of the Rakhine state, Rohingyas are “NOT” minorities.

    6. It is also correct that Rohingyas are not getting the benefits of being a Myanmar citizen (whatever that means).

    7. There is a doubt that a muslim can be faithful to a non-islamic nation.

    8. Rohingyas are poor, just like Rakhines are poor.

    9. Nothing tangible is being heard from the islamic countries, regarding
    solving this conflict in terms of cash donation, relocation, peace
    ideas (not violent threatening), etc.

    10. Rohingyas deserve sympathy. But ethnic Rakhine people deserve sympathy, too.

    • “motivated by Islamic ideas of world domination (crazy as it sounds, it is indeed the case)”. Isn’t that the case everywhere?

    • Everyone should be allowed to live in peace. But this list is full of false statements. Local Rakhines people are being told that Muslims are taking over even though Muslims are less than 5 percent of the population. In some areas the percentage is higher but so what? There is nothing in Islam that prevents you from being a good and full citizen; unfortunately however there is something in Burma that prevents full citizenship and that is the govt law that has rendered the Rohingya stateless since the early 1980s. So the violence relates to a longer project to marginalize these Muslim and other minority groups. It would be better (and more Buddhist) to include everyone and not be persecuting groups. The number of Muslims killed and dislocated is much, much higher than the number of Rakhines. Instead of making up “facts” why not read the Human Rights Watch reports, Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International, the UN reports. Instead of suggesting to Islamic countries to solve this conflict through… relocation… when already there are over 140,000 refugees already in this latest wave alone, why not stop the violence and the theft of land.

    • I highly doubt she’s still hugely popular in Burma. Perhaps in the ethnic Burmese circles. But among the ethnic minorities, she’s seen as this article describes, or worse even.

      • jjap,
        Thanks for your comment. But I have to say that your assessment is wrong.
        You said, “Perhaps in the ethnic Burmese circles”. Please understand that ASSK is “definitely” popular among the ethnic burmeses, not just ‘perhaps’ as you described it.

        Among the ethnic minorities, she is still popular. She is still considered the only leader who can bring lasting peace among ethnic minorities. The only blemish is that Kachin people sorta blamed ASSK for KIO/KIA’s recent armed struggles against the government, “for no valid reason”. It is their overexpectation which made them feel dissatisfied with ASSK. It’s not even ASSK’s fault for their problems. Ethnic minorities do not have a shred of reasons to hate her. If they do, it comes from their reverse racist thinking.

        ASSK is no ordinary politician, which you are accustomed to. She is a revolutionary leader. Your assessment (and Kohler’s) that she is in decline, is simply wrong.

  3. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Canadian. Are we helping her?

  4. Not meaning to offend anyone’s sensibilities here but Muslim minorities around the world are generally considered to be the least able and willing to integrate into any society anywhere. And by the way does anyone remember what happened to the Bhuddists of Afghanistan–well let’s just say it wasn’t very pretty. So the writer of this piece may want to ponder in thought before getting his knickers in a twist.

    • Note also; Buddhists and Hindus in neighbouring secular (so-called) Bangladesh are also being killed and their homes destroyed.

    • Your claim is without merit. Whatever group is at the bottom economically is said to be “least able and willing.” In the US they said that about the Irish first, then the Italians, then the Jews, and all the time the African Americans… now it’s the Muslims’ turn. But on the other hand many American Muslims do in fact integrate well– see the Pew studies, for example. The claims are stereotypes for the most part.
      In Canada there are right wing claims that “bad” immigrants are destroying the country, but for the most part in the more diverse areas folks don’t see this as such a threat. This sort of claim is a tool of dirty politics. In some countries this politics leads to concentration camps, in others it just makes things unfair for a couple of generations. Which will it be in Burma? How about taking the high road for a change? Wouldn’t that be better for the whole country, which has a lot of development ahead?

  5. To be fair to the lady, Mandela could afford to appear generous. With whites constituting only 10% of the electorate in SA the ANC never were and, even with the abominable Zuma as leader, still aren’t in any danger of losing an election.

  6. Nope, she’s exactly like the REAL Nelson Mandela. Mandela seemed to have helped end apartheid, but it was actually done by ALL South Africans within South Africa long before he was released from jail.

    Mr Mandela and his ANC loved to make the world believe that South Africa had remained in a 1960 time warp. but the truth is different. He pledged to “liberate” a country that was already being liberated.

    All he really did was revert South Africa back to a time of tribal wars and race disharmony. South Africa went from a first world country where everyone had access to tertiary education. Where Blacks enjoyed free state medical care. Where well educated Black people already held senior positions in major corporations. Mr Mandela legacy is changing that country to one of the most violent in the world. There is a reason why more than one million South African of all races emigrated.

    Just do your homework.

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