Argument

Aung San Suu Kyi Is A Politician, Not A Monster

Western liberals projected their own hopes onto "the Lady" — and then blamed her for not living up to them.

Volunteers take down posters of Aung San Suu Kyi at the National League for Democracy Party head office on November 6, 2015 in Kaw Hmu, Myanmar.
Volunteers take down posters of Aung San Suu Kyi at the National League for Democracy Party head office on November 6, 2015 in Kaw Hmu, Myanmar. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

Few idols have fallen so fast or so far as Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor — the country’s de facto head of state — and leader of the National League for Democracy, which heads the current ruling coalition. In recent months, “the Lady” — winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her principled and resolute opposition to military rule in Myanmar — has been blasted worldwide for her failure to speak out, much less act against the brutal campaign being waged by the Myanmar military against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the geographically isolated and desperately poor state of Rakhine. There have even been calls for the Nobel rules to be changed so that her prize can be revoked.

Some of these criticisms are fair. But Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t a monster. She’s a political realist, attempting to do the best she can with limited power in an extremely volatile young democracy where the military still wields massive veto power. That has caused her to make what may be considered callous decisions and to sacrifice the interests of a minority for those of the majority she believes she is tasked with representing. Unlike many of her critics, Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t a free actor thousands of miles away who can speak without consequence; she’s in a highly risky and painful position.

I hold no brief for “the Lady.” I have written critically of her inflexibility and political posturing in the past and never jumped wholeheartedly onto the National League for Democracy bandwagon. But I believe she is being judged unfairly now by people with little understanding of the challenges she faces.

On the surface, the case made by Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics is powerful. The plight of the Rohingya, among the most unfortunate and friendless people in the world, is heartbreaking. Aung San Suu Kyi refuses even to use the term “Rohingya” in her infrequent references to the horrific sequence of events in Rakhine since 2016. This sequence has included isolated acts of Rohingya terrorism, and gruesome retaliatory violence perpetrated against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military and its civilian allies, resulting in the mass exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh.

These events have led many commentators, from human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations to mainstream Western pundits, to accuse the military — and by implication the government of Myanmar — of ethnic cleansing or even attempted genocide against the Rohingya. Not surprisingly, Aung San Suu Kyi has been singled out for criticism — including swipes by noted celebrity “experts” such as Angelina Jolie, Bob Geldof, and Bono — and in March, the New York Times roundly denounced her on its editorial page.

This seems to be a case of piling on. However horrific the present situation in Rakhine — and it is truly horrific — it is important to remember that today’s crisis didn’t begin in 2016. Buddhist-Muslim conflict goes way back in Myanmar, due in part to the large influx of Muslim laborers from South Asia into the country during the colonial period. The British colonizers encouraged such migration, and tensions between the large Buddhist majority and the small Muslim minority have flared up intermittently in various parts of the country since 1948, when Myanmar (then known as Burma) became independent.

Such flare-ups have been particularly pronounced in the state of Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh in western Myanmar. Unlike the case in other parts of the country, Muslims until recently constituted a large minority in Rakhine — at least a third of the population — with the overwhelming proportion of Muslims there classified as Rohingya or, to use the government’s parlance, “non-enumerated” Bengalis or Chittagonian Muslims.

Many Buddhists in Myanmar — especially Buddhists of the Burman ethnic group, which comprises about 68 percent of the entire population of the country — associate Muslims, rightly or wrongly, with British colonialism. Many Burmese Buddhists see the British period as a disaster, with Muslims regarded as junior partners in the foreign occupation of the country. With independence, Burmese leaders began pushing nativist, xenophobic policies, which intensified greatly with Gen. Ne Win’s coup in 1962 and the onset of 50 years of military rule.

At various points, official policies were complemented by the efforts of nongovernmental groups (including radical Buddhist monks), which sometimes resulted in violence against “foreigners,” particularly South Asian Muslims. Nowhere did legal and extralegal opposition to South Asian Muslims manifest itself more frequently than in Rakhine, where communal tensions between Buddhists and Muslims erupted into violence in the 1950s, and again in the late 1970s, the early 1990s, from 2001 to 2002, and in the years after 2012, culminating in the crisis of 2016 to 2017.

That’s the context for Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions — or inaction — ever since she sidled into power in the months after the 2015 elections. Myanmar is replete with wary, often warring ethnic groups — 135 are officially recognized — and Aung San Suu Kyi’s base resides with the largest such group, Burman Buddhists, among whom anti-Muslim rhetoric and action enjoys considerable support. It is important to note that Burman Buddhists control the military as well. And, lest we forget, since the early 1980s, the government has not accorded the Rohingya official status in the country, so Aung San Suu Kyi inherited this policy, too.

None of the above considerations are meant to whitewash Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions regarding the Rohingya crisis, much less to exonerate her. They are intended rather to underscore the fact that, in political terms, she doesn’t have much room to maneuver. The “opening” in Myanmar — an “opening” at once signaled and symbolized by the 2008 constitution and the lopsided victory of the National League for Democracy in the 2015 elections — is extremely fragile and can be closed tightly at a moment’s notice by the present leaders of the Myanmar military. The assassination last year of Aung San Suu Kyi’s close Muslim ally, Ko Ni — shot dead after exiting a plane at the Yangon International Airport — testifies to this fact. The senior counselor is many things, but few believe her to be stupid, and she knows the power dynamics within Myanmar all too well.

It needs to be kept in mind, too — as journalist Francis Wade has recently shown — that many of the same people in Myanmar who denounced the generals for decades are cheering on their campaign against the Rohingya. Emerging democracies are often marked by populist, ultranationalist behaviors that seem unseemly, if not repellent, to citizens in more mature democratic states in the West. Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Myanmar — including the bloody campaign against the Rohingya — can be seen as an extreme example of the same. That’s not totally surprising in a fractious, divided country that is just beginning to emerge from generations of military control.

Any and all assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance regarding the Rohingya must take all of this into account. The fact that she is a nationalist, a Buddhist — as are somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of the Burmese population, and a Burman matters a lot. Like the vast majority of Burman Buddhist nationalists — including her late father, Aung San, the “George Washington” of Myanmar — Aung San Suu Kyi seeks more than anything else to keep whole her large, unwieldy, ethnically diverse country, which despite its formal name (“The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”) is at present a “union” in name only. Right now, taking up the cause of the Rohingya — or even mentioning their name —is not conducive to this end.

In some ways, I believe, Aung San Suu Kyi’s position today regarding the Rohingya is akin to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s regarding emancipation early in the American Civil War. U.S. historians increasingly believe that both Lincoln and the Republican Party were moving toward emancipation well before the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln in September 1862. But in a letter to anti-slavery newspaper editor Horace Greeley exactly one month before issuing the proclamation, Lincoln wrote that his “paramount object” in the Civil War “is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.”

Although he noted that his “personal wish” was “that all men, everywhere, could be free,” he was adamant that “[w]hat I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” Elsewhere in the letter he admits that “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.”

In other words, even a moral stalwart such as Lincoln knew the limits of his power and realized that he had to prevaricate at times in order to gain his principal end. Lincoln may or may not have viewed black Americans as full citizens and equals — at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter much — but he stepped up when the timing was right. Aung San Suu Kyi is no Lincoln, but she is no moral ogre either. She may or may not like the Rohingya, but it’s only a more solid and confident Union of Myanmar that can bring the stability and economic development that would ensure a better Rakhine for both Rohingya and others.

There is a chance, of course, that by then it will be too late. Therefore, in the interim, the world, especially the West, should use the limited leverage it has over the Myanmar government to protect the Rohingya remaining in Rakhine state, and to attempt to alleviate the abhorrent conditions in which Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are living.

Realistically — and tragically — little is likely to be done. Realpolitik motivates most regional actors, and the Islamic world, despite public pressure to act, has done little to aid the Rohingya. Minor sanctions seem the most anybody will commit to, and NGOs, like the pope, have no military divisions.

Western liberals erred 25 years ago in believing that Aung San Suu Kyi was somehow the avatar of universal human rights. Rather, she bravely championed human rights in the specific context of the overwhelmingly Buddhist nation-state of Myanmar, and she put a lot on the line in doing so.

She was a Buddhist Burman nationalist then, and she remains one today. And whether we like it or not, her critics need to recognize that Aung San Suu Kyi has fewer degrees of freedom than Bono and the editorial board of the New York Times assume.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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