The Strange Journey of Aung San Suu Kyi

Source: The Scarlet / / By Andrew Rose, Scarlet Staff /

The 2016 election of Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to usher in a new era in Myanmar. For decades, the people of this small, Southeast Asian nation had labored under the oppressive rule of a secretive, and indescribably brutal, military dictatorship.

Aung San Suu Kyi knew the nature of the regime well. Her father had been a prominent politician in the previous government. At the age of three, she witnessed his murder by a group of goons sent by the then newly installed military dictatorship. After spending years abroad, she returned to her country of origin to lead in its incipient pro-democracy movement. Myanmar’s military overlords rather predictably took issue with this, and she was confined to house arrest for the better part of the next thirty years. Yet she did not stop writing or speaking out against her oppressors.

In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By that time, she was widely considered to be one of the leading lights of the global movement towards democracy, liberalism, and human freedom. Democracy and humanitarianism seemed ascendant in the late twentieth century, and Aung San Suu Kyi served as one of their human icons, along with men such as Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Lech Walesa. However, her newfound adulation on the world stage did not mean she was free from government persecution, and she remained under house arrest.

Then, in 2016, the unthinkable happened. Myanmar’s military dictatorship signaled its attention to make a limited turn towards openness and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from home confinement. She ran for the position of State Counsellor, Myanmar’s equivalent of a Prime Minister, and won with 81% of the vote. It seemed a new dawn had arrived. After decades of oppression and violence, it looked as if Myanmar would finally have a leader who would stand up for human rights.

It is now 2018. Two years have elapsed since Aung San Suu Kyi took the helm of the Burmese state, but Myanmar is not currently being noted for any bold steps towards ensuring the protection of human rights and dignity. On the contrary, the world is watching in horror as one of the worst genocides to occur in the past two decades unfolds within the country’s borders. The Burmese military has embarked on a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The victims, the Rohingya, are a predominantly agrarian, Muslim minority group. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have died at the hands of the Burmese military. War rape, one of the greatest plagues of the third-world, is being perpetrated en masse against Rohingya women. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and many Rohingya have succumbed to disease and famine. Moreover, the spillover of terrified refugees across the border into Thailand and Bangladesh is threatening to create a humanitarian crisis in that country.

As for Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who was, until recently, one of the world’s leading defenders of human rights? Nothing but denials, evasions, and absurd assertions that the Rohingya themselves are to blame for their fate. This summer, the United Nations released a report that labeled the actions of the Burmese military a genocide-in-progress.

As Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has an obvious obligation to intervene on the Rohingya’s behalf. Instead, she has chosen to either condone or be wilfully ignorant of the military’s crimes. For this, along with her government’s jailing of two journalists, the Canadian Parliament has voted to strip her of her honorary Canadian citizenship. The Nobel Prize Committee has condemned Suu Kyi for her refusal to acknowledge, let alone prevent, the crimes against the Rohingya. However, they have declined to revoke her Peace Prize, with a spokesman claiming that it is not the Nobel Prize Committee’s job to police the behavior of its laureates.

This is unfortunate; Aung San Suu Kyi spent decades as a near universally beloved heroine and she is now something else. Her newfound pariah status is richly deserved, and it is high time the Nobel Prize Committee recognized that fact.