Burma’s Fallen Idol

Her country is in crisis. But human rights heroine Aung San Suu Kyi isn't giving Burma the leadership it needs.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Years ago, during a brief break in Aung San Suu Kyi’s long years of detention, a fellow congressional staffer and I visited Burma’s democracy leader at her lakeside home in Rangoon. It was the late 1990s, not quite 10 years after her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its ethnic allies won a smashing victory over the ruling junta’s party in a parliamentary election. Soon after our meeting, the generals cut her off from the world again. It would be more than another 10 years before she emerged from house arrest.

My colleague, unlike me, said he did not embrace an American policy closely tied to Aung San Suu Kyi, her views on sanctions (she was strongly in favor), and her determination to see the NLD’s electoral victory respected. Anyway, he said, democracy just brings another set of problems.

"I’d like to have those problems," Aung San Suu Kyi replied.

Now she does — and her response to them, particularly the surge in anti-Muslim bigotry and violence, has tarnished her image abroad while raising concerns about the future of Burma’s tentative political reform. 

One year ago, riots, arson and murder targeted Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine (Arakan) state after three men from the community raped and murdered a Buddhist woman. This mainly spontaneous violence was followed, according to Human Rights Watch, by a more orchestrated campaign in October. Since then, religious violence has spread across Burma, targeting Muslims more integrated and less vulnerable than the Rohingya, a population that has endured longstanding discrimination. A report by Physicians for Human Rights describes a March pogrom in Meiktila, in central Burma, in which 100 people died and armed groups destroyed homes and mosques. 

On June 20, 12 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates issued a statement calling upon the Burmese government to prevent violence against Muslims and other ethnic minorities. 

Given the Buddhist teachings of compassion and non-violence, Burma seems an unlikely, even inhospitable place for bigotry and racial hatred. In fact, however, experts fear that the anti-Muslim prejudice is deeply rooted there. "Buddhist kings drew their legitimacy from their institutional support for the monkhood and from a cosmology that presented the well-being of the Buddhist community as an indicator of the strength of the nation," writes Matthew J. Walton, a scholar at George Washington University. "Thus, threats to Buddhism also function as threats to the nation."

After Yugoslavia and Iraq, we are no longer shocked when long-suppressed religious and ethnic conflicts complicate democratic change. The problem is not only that these fault lines exist, but also that quite often they are accepted as innate human phenomena. In Indonesia, as President Suharto was faltering, some policymakers were quick to suggest that Indonesia’s ethnic and sectarian divisions made Suharto’s authoritarianism a better option than a democratic transition. "’Amok’ is a Malay word" some tutted at the time, although in the event, Indonesia never experienced the instability and blood-letting so many predicted.

Among the instigators of the anti-Muslim campaign is U Wirathu, a radical, Mandalay-based monk, who has shot to prominence for his racist sermons, calls for anti-Muslim laws, and association with the "969 campaign," which urges boycotts of Muslim businesses. The number 969 refers to important components of Buddhism and, according to Walton, may serve as "a symbolic counter to the number 786, a numerological shorthand for Islam used among some Muslims in Asian countries."

The response from the prominent pro-democracy figures has ranged from weak to worse. Aung San Suu Kyi seems to speak about human rights abroad, and about her admiration for Burma’s army abroad. On a visit to Burma last August, expecting a youth’s idealism on race, I ventured my surprise at this to a young activist in his early 30s. Instead, he said he too had ugly things to say about the Rohingya. (I didn’t pursue it.) The Human Rights Watch report was challenged by prominent members of the 88 Generation Students Group, which Human Rights Watch has spent years supporting. One of them, Min Zaya, called the report "an insult to the nation." Another young dissident told me that he held more tolerant views, but expressed respect for U Wirathu’s religious stature.

While Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow democrats have hung back, some monks have stepped forward. "I deeply denounce these religious, racial and commercial conflicts with no exceptions," the revered monk Sitagu Sayadaw told an audience in Rangoon on March 30, 2013. "I firmly believe other religious denominations share the same concept, and no god prescribed conflict of any kind." Ashin Issariya, a religious leader who enjoys considerable respect for his prominent role in the 2007 protests against the military junta, belongs to a network of monks and monasteries that provided aid and shelter for displaced Muslims. In the past few days, a conclave of monks has met to reject the violence and shunted aside U Wirathu’s proposal to outlaw inter-religious marriages.

The euphoria that comes with the beginnings of freedom and democracy are bound to give way to frustration and cynicism as the problems suppressed and festering under dictatorial rule come to the surface. I recall reading that after his release from a Burmese jail, a political prisoner expressed a yearning to return to prison, just for a few days, to regain the clarity of purpose that enabled him to survive.

During her years of struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded prizes named for human rights heroes the world over: the Sakharov prize, the Wallenberg prize, the Gandhi prize. In 1991 she also won the Nobel Peace Prize, though she was unable to go to Oslo to receive it. When she finally picked it up last year, she spoke movingly of the "oneness of humanity," and how she had passed her time in isolation reflecting on the Burmese concept of peace, describing it as a "beneficial coolness that comes when a fire is extinguished."

It would be good to hear Aung San Suu Kyi give a speech like this again. She may judge that the realities of her political situation require something else. I believe the opposite is true.

Today, Burma needs a Tolerance Prize. How sad to think that, if such a prize existed, Aung San Suu Kyi would not even be on the shortlist.

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