Aung San Suu Kyi – from the oppressed to the oppressor

Image: Martin Schultz

Over the last year almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar. In fact, fled understates the reality of the situation. Over the last year almost 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced out of their homelands, through a calculated campaign of ethnic cleansing and “genocide” in a military backed campaign. This campaign has included rape, murder, torture and the burning of civilian villages.

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist populated country (88%) with a long history of military juntas who scapegoat, intimidate and discriminate against the minority (4%) Muslim population. In 1982 the Rohingya people were made stateless when the Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) government passed the citizenship act which recognised 135 ethnic groups – the Rohingya with a population of nearly a million weren’t included. So started the systematic dehumanisation of the Rohingya people that has led to the crisis we see today. Making the situation even worse is a cruel twist. Many of the Rohingya people are the same people who supported the current de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi in her struggle for freedom when she was under house arrest. The leader they fought for has turned her back on them.

Aung San Suu Kyi has had a difficult life, more or less constantly in some kind of danger and a government target due to her icon status as the face of the democratisation movement. At the age of two, her father, the man who negotiated Myanmar’s independence from the British and founded the Myanmar army was assassinated. One of her brothers tragically drowned at their family home at the young age of eight. As Aung San Suu Kyi grew, her mother became a well-known political figure with multiple postings as ambassadors to various countries, all of which Aung San Suu Kyi temporarily lived in. After graduating in 1968 Aung San Suu Kyi spent the next 20 years away from Myanmar, returning in 1988 to help care for her mother whose health was failing. Shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi first became involved in the democracy movement.

For more than two decades Aung San Suu Kyi became a symbol of hope, earned the respect of world leaders and gained a huge global following. In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi was involved in the founding and creation of the National League for Democracy. By 1989 she was under house arrest. However Aung San Suu Kyi was free to leave house arrest at any point – with just one condition, she must leave Myanmar.

During the course of her house arrest, her party continued to do well, in 1990 it won 59% of votes, however despite international uproar the military junta nullified the vote and refused to step down. Over a period of 21 years Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 under house arrest. During this period her husband developed prostate cancer, despite international calls for the lovers to be able to see each other one last time he was denied a visa and died in 1999 having only seen her on 5 occasions since she was placed under house arrest 10 years earlier. During her house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi was also separated from her children who were living in London, half the world away. She always had the option of leaving, but she refused to abandon her country, her principles and her people. So she became an icon of resistance in the face of oppression. Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010, it is hard to imagine the sacrifices that she has made in order to try and bring democracy to Myanmar.

If this was the end of her story then she rightly should go down in history as a hero, standing with the likes of Mandela or Ghandi. Devastatingly though, she has destroyed her own hard fought respect and moral authority and destroyed her legitimacy by refusing and actively trying to play down reports of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya people.

I mentioned earlier that we, me writing this and you reading it, would find it hard to imagine what Aung San Suu Kyi has been through. We will definitely find it impossible to imagine what it must be like to have weapon bearing men storming into where we live; killing our fathers and brothers in front of us; raping our mothers and sisters before killing them too; and finally burning our houses down. This is happening because in this situation we are trying to imagine “we” are a different ethnic group or because “we” pray to a different god.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi is not in charge of the military she is the de facto leader of Myanmar and her failure to properly and consistently condemn what is happening makes her seem more like a military sympathiser than a person who was imprisoned by the military for so many years. She has played down reports: saying that she thinks ethnic cleansing is too strong a phrase, she has said there is “huge iceberg of misinformation” and has missed a UN General Assembly meeting in New York where she would have been able to condemn the actions of the military. She has even tried to soothe fears by saying that “more than 50% of the villages of Muslims are intact,” but that means 50% are gone, burnt to the floor their occupants forced to flee if they’re lucky or brutally murdered if unlucky. In fact it is wrong of me to bring the word luck into this, it suggests coincidence or chance. There is no coincidence in Myanmar, but a concentrated effort to finally get rid of the Rohingya people after decades of persecution and discrimination against them. And while there has been inexcusable militant groups, made up of a tiny minority of the Rohingya people who have committed violent acts themselves. One can understand why a small group of people could turn to violence in the face of such oppression and violence themselves.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent the last three decades promoting democracy and crucially human rights, but when the Myanmar’s army is faced with accusations of genocide by the UN and a minority group of her country’s people continued to be butchered, she has failed to do so. Her lack of action has made her become morally complicit with the activities of the military.

What makes this role reversal all the more devastating is that the world had such high hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi. She was seen by many, including by lots of the Rohingya people, as a hero, someone to look up to, someone who gave hope to people in a hopeless situation that a better tomorrow was possible. When she now talks about human rights the world should call her out for what she has become, a fraud. A person who is willing to turn the other way when it suits her. She has through her own lack of action gone from being oppressed to being the oppressor. That in itself is a tragedy. I can now only hope that the world and that world leaders and that the people of the world’s nations can work to help end the suffering of the Rohingya people.

Many of the Rohingya people are now homeless, stuck inside vast refugee camps where they are vulnerable and defenceless, if this article has affected you at all then I ask you to help the Rohingya people by donating to UNHCR who have sent aid and help where they can, you can donate here https://donate.unhcr.org/gb-en/general

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