25 Oct 2013

Aung San Suu Kyi: falling from grace

People are beginning to question the judgement of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s icon of democracy, and an interview she gave about the Rohingya will add to those doubts.

As political heroes go, few rank higher that Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Most people know her as a modern-day saint – the diminutive democrat who defied Burma’s ruthless military leaders. Yet an increasing number are beginning to question Ms Suu Kyi’s judgement.

Remarks made in a BBC television interview this week in relation to that country’s brutal ethnic conflict between Buddhists and the minority Muslims have earned particular criticism. Observers and activists have accused Burma’s “icon of democracy” of factual inaccuracies and a surprising shortage of compassion.

Ethnic violence erupted last year in Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s Rakhine state. Rohingya Muslims bore the brunt of the violence with an estimated 142,000 now living in a series of squalid camps. In April, Human Rights Watch accused government and military officials, as well as local extremist groups, of ethnic cleansing.

When asked about HRW’s findings by the BBC, Ms Suu Kyi dismissed them out of hand. “It’s not ethnic cleansing,” she said. “What the world needs to understand (is) that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well.” This is her standard response to questions about the violence. Nobody bears responsibility. Instead, “fear” is blamed. Everyone suffers “equally”. In Ms Suu Kyi’s world, victims and offenders are the same.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. The vast majority of Muslim Rohingya residents in Sittwe have been cleared out while Buddhists (for the most part) remain in their homes. Furthermore, the Rohingya are politically powerless. They are denied citizenship in Burma and face a wide range of draconian restrictions on healthcare, schooling, travel – even their ability to have children. The Buddhist population on the other hand face no comparable restrictions – and why would they? They control the local and state government.

Muslims in Burma were troubled by several other references in her BBC interview. First, a reference to those Muslims who had “managed to integrate” has made many feel uncomfortable. Here’s what she said: “I would like to make the point that there are many moderate Muslims in Burma who have been well integrated into our society….” That’s got many people asking whether she thinks Muslims have to acquire some sort of “Burmeseness” in order to be “accepted”. There is, of course, no such thing as a national identity in Burma. The constitution recognises 135 different ethnic groups

Secondly, Ms Suu Kyi seems to suggest that the violence was caused by Buddhists’ fear of what she calls “global Muslim power”, saying: “You, I think, will accept that there is a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great and certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world, and in our country too.” This is dangerous territory for the Nobel Prize winner.

The Rohingya have not been linked with any acts of violence – or pan-Arab extremist groups like al-Qaeda – despite the desperate situation they find themselves in. If Burmese Buddhists perceive Muslim groups like the Rohingya to be part of a “global Muslim power movement”, it is incumbent on her, as a person with real moral authority, to correct that misconception.


Despite her comments, Ms Suu Kyi finds herself very much in demand. She has been in the UK this week visiting a long list of dignitaries, like the Prime Minister David Cameron and former leader Gordon Brown, as well as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. Today, Ms Suu Kyi travelled to Sandhurst military academy (see picture above) to “deliver a speech and see the cadets training,” according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Interestingly, Ms Suu Kyi won’t be visiting any civil rights groups in London – the organisations who supported her vigorously when she spent nearly two decades under house arrest. Nor is she expected to drop in on members of the sizeable Burmese community in the UK. To do so would lead to the sort of robust exchange of views that our modern-day saint now seems keen to avoid.

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