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Aung San Suu Kyi unravels her own myth

The weak response from the Nobel laureate to ethnic cleansing of Rohingya is grotesque

Aung San Suu Kyi delivering the speech in which she refused to criticise the military. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi at least had the self-awareness to know that her status as a made-for-Hollywood symbol of moral purity and righteous self-sacrifice could hardly survive her transition from jailed democracy activist to leader of a complex, deeply-riven state in a combustible neighbourhood.

“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010. But few would have predicted just how quickly or how thoroughly the sheen would wear off the Nobel laureate’s image.

Eighteen months after she became the de facto leader of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Suu Kyi finds herself the target of international outrage. Some 421,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to Bangladesh since August 25th, when the army of largely Buddhist Myanmar began a violent rampage through Rakhine state, where the minority group is concentrated. Soldiers are reported to have raped women, decapitated children and set whole villages ablaze.

Myanmar’s one million Rohingya have long suffered persecution at the hands of a state that views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite their roots in Rakhine stretching to precolonial times. Myanmar stripped them of their citizenship in 1982 and forces them to live in appalling, apartheid-like conditions.

Textbook terror

The pretext for the latest crackdown was an attack by Rohingya militants in late August on police posts and a military base, but the ensuing pogrom by the military, described by the United Nations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, has made Suu Kyi the subject of wide condemnation.

Parts of Suu Kyi’s speech were clearly disingenuous. She claimed not to know what the causes of the crisis were

Her initial response was silence. Then on Tuesday, more than three weeks after the military campaign began, she gave a 30-minute speech in which she condemned “all human rights violations” in general terms but refused to criticise the military. Employing euphemisms that could have come from the mouths of the generals who once imprisoned her, she spoke of “clearance operations” in Rakhine and remarked that “more than 50 per cent” of Rohingya villages in the state remained intact. “We have to remove the negative and increase the positive,” she said, sounding less like a stateswoman and more like a mindfulness guru. It was a speech remarkably short of compassion, but its message played well among her Buddhist nationalist supporters. Thousands of supporters cheered in Yangon as her speech was relayed on a big screen.

Parts of Suu Kyi’s speech were clearly disingenuous. She claimed not to know what the causes of the crisis were, yet repeatedly referred to a recent report on the situation in Rakhine by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general. That report identifies the key issues as the lack of citizenship for the stateless Rohingya, socio-economic problems in the state as well as police and military actions there. Suu Kyi claimed Myanmar “does not fear international scrutiny”, yet for many months access to Rakhine by journalists, human rights groups and diplomats has been heavily restricted. Moreover, her claim that Rohingya have access to the same services as their non-Muslim neighbours is clearly at odds with the Annan report, which found that restrictions on movement reduced Rohingyas’access to health, education and other services.

A Rohingya refugee walks at the camp of Kutupalong in Bangladesh. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Military power

To Suu Kyi’s defenders, she finds herself in an impossible situation. They argue that to publicly confront the generals, who retain huge power, would be to curtail her own influence and even to risk a return to outright military rule.

According to Sophie Boisseau du Rocher, a Myanmar specialist at the French Institute of International Relations, Suu Kyi’s silence should not be read as support for the offensive. She argues that for Suu Kyi the long-term prize is the national reconciliation that has eluded Myanmar since it won independence; to jeopardise that by condemning the generals would in her view be counterproductive.

To hear it from a Nobel laureate, revered for her nonviolent stand against oppression, is grotesque

Boisseau du Rocher sees subtle but important gestures in Suu Kyi’s speech; her reference to “the suffering of our people” implicitly recognised the Rohingya as belonging to the nation – a notion many Myanmarese would reject. Those who interpret her words as a blank cheque for the military misunderstand the limited room for manoeuvre Suu Kyi enjoys. “The slightest slip of the tongue and all these processes – national reconciliation as well as democratic transition – would seize up,” Boisseau du Rocher wrote in Le Monde.

The Suu Kyi defence, in other words, is to plead political tactics. For any politician faced with such a horrifying situation, such a response would be an appalling misjudgment. To hear it from a Nobel laureate, revered for her nonviolent stand against oppression, is grotesque.

Suu Kyi knows that her voice is her power. For 20 years, it was all she had. Now, more than ever, she must use it.