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.”