In the eyes of the world, her fight for democracy echoed that of Mandela and Gandhi. Surprising then that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar, should find herself shoulder-to-shoulder with Hungary’s Victor Orbán, arguably Europe’s most undemocratic ruler. But last week, that’s precisely what happened.
More striking still was the meeting’s conclusion. Migration is their great mutual challenge, a statement read – before adding: “both regions have seen the emergence of the issue of co-existence with continuously growing Muslim populations”. For critics aghast at the racist undertones, it marked a new low in Suu Kyi’s spiralling reputation.
The one-time Nobel peace prize laureate’s fall from grace has been dizzyingly fast. In the four years since her election, Aung San Suu Kyi has made countless concessions to the military of Burma – the former name for the south-east Asian state – least not her blind eye to its murderous campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
Her economic and legal reforms have faltered too, and civil rights are being rowed back on at pace – and some fear that the worst is still to come. Read on as we delve deeper into the life and times of global democracy’s fallen angel.
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi and what’s her background?
Widely referred to as ‘Daw’ – meaning ‘aunt’ – Suu Kyi was born in 1945 in the British colony of Burma. Her father Aung San founded the modern Burmese military – and was the man who, in 1947, negotiated Myanmar’s independence from the British Empire. Her mother, Khin Kyi, was a notable political figure in the country’s post-colonial era.
Suu Kyi was raised a Buddhist, though she mixed with people of various backgrounds, political views and religions during her childhood. She studied politics in India before completing a Masters at Oxford University. Later, she would marry and start a family with an Englishman she met while studying.
In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma. The country’s long standing military leader had stood down, sparking mass pro-democracy demonstrations. Suu Kyi became a figurehead of the movement, often seen addressing hundreds-of-thousands of supporters. Her efforts failed, however, and a new military junta took power shortly after.
It was then that, having helped establish to National League for Democracy political party (NLD), Suu Kyi was put under house arrest. Despite her commitment to non-violent protest, the incarceration would last 15 years. In 1991, recognising her “struggle against oppression”, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It would be the first in a long line of accolades bestowed upon her by the Western world, where she was recognised as a democratic champion.
Then, in 2010, she emerged from her isolation – and once again raised the flag of peaceful political transition.
Election victory and hopes of a progressive agenda
After decades in political purgatory, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD gained power at Myanmar’s 2015 general election – the first openly contested vote in the nation’s history. And while the military-drafted constitution prevented her from becoming president, she took over control through the freshly created office of State Counsellor.
Her tenure kicked off on a positive note. Suu Kyi granted amnesty to students facing charges for opposing education reforms, and she announced the creation of a commission on Rakhine state, where a Muslim minority was facing persecution.
The auspicious start wasn’t to last, however, and soon critics were questioning her commitment to progress. Though she controlled both the parliament and the presidency (through a proxy), Suu Kyi still seemed to be kowtowing to the military, whose leaders retained significant civil authority despite the ostensible onset of democracy.
And while some criticized her surprisingly imperious leadership style, it was the short lived hopes of economic and judicial reform that disappointed most. Given her international standing, there was optimism that Suu Kyi would bring in the foreign investment desperately required by all emerging economies, but this hasn’t been the case. In the years since her election, foreign spending in Myanmar has tumbled 35%. Her domestic economic strategy hasn’t panned out either, with GDP growth falling well short of forecasts.
On legal reforms, Suu Kyi has also failed to live up to expectations. Free speech and assembly – sacrosanct rights in any true democracy – were severely restricted under the military junta. Despite her rhetoric, only marginal changes were made to the laws governing these when Suu Kyi took power.
It was, however, her seeming betrayal of pledges to secure peace among Myanmar’s various ethnic groups – least not the Rohingya Muslims – that has disappointed the civilised world so greatly.
What happened to the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State?
It was said to be the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Upwards of 700,000 people forced from their homes by a campaign of destruction and persecution that – according to the UN – amounted to a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
That was the situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine province back in 2017, when the local community of Rohingya Muslims faced the fiercest of military onslaughts.
The Rohingya represented the largest Islamic group in Myanmar, numbering around one million before the violence erupted. The vast majority lived in Rakhine state. Despite their unique language and culture, the government long refused to recognise the group – preferring, instead, to regard them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. When Aung San Suu Kyi took power, many hoped she would grant the minority group citizenship and champion their rights.
This has not been the case. After an initial skirmish with Rohingya militants in August 2017, troops backed by Buddhist mobs began burning villages and killing civilians indiscriminately. The military claimed to be conducting legitimate security missions – and, in September, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government announced that operations had ended. Weeks later, human rights groups reported the continued decimation of Rohingya townships, with hundreds of thousands fleeing the violence into neighbouring Bangladesh.
Amid the building burning, rape, and torture, an estimated 25,000 civilians were killed. And yet, Aung San Suu Kyi remained silent. Even now, despite promises of state-aided resettlement, her government has failed to guarantee the refugees’ safety if they return, refusing to grant them Myanmar citizenship. Instead, they’ll be offered residence in hastily constructed settlements away from their former villages and segregated from the rest of the population. All the while reports of intimidation, beatings and strict military-mandated curfews continue to seep out of Rakhine state.
Human rights groups have called for Myanmar’s military commanders to be tried for genocide, and the International Criminal Court has said that it is considering charges of crimes against humanity. But Suu Kyi’s government has roundly rejected the intervention of foreign institutions, making clear it would not cooperate with any such investigation.
This seems typical of a leader who, according to a UN report on the crisis, failed to use her moral authority to prevent the butchery. “Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes,” the report concluded. Suu Kyi rarely addresses the issue directly, but, when pushed last year, she conceded that the Rohingya situation “could have been handled better” – but still she refused to condemn the military’s actions.
The case of two journalists and Myanmar’s civil liberty crisis
As the horrors of Rakhine state’s subjugation emerged, another story caught the world’s attention. Two journalists covering the catastrophe for global news agency Reuters were arrested, hastily convicted of breaching state secrets laws, and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both Myanmar citizens, were detained in December 2017 after uncovering a mass grave in Rakhine state. Shortly before their arrest, the pair had been approached by police officers and handed documents containing incriminating evidence. At trial, a police captain testified that the reporters had been entrapped – but he, like the journalists, soon found himself in prison for breaching police disciplinary rules.
The journalists’ report – released while they were imprisoned – presented testimonies from a range of individuals involved in the violence, including Buddhist villagers who confessed to killing Rohingya Muslims and torching their homes. Other evidence pointed to the military’s murderous involvement.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government prosecuted the journalists – and, before the trial had even concluded, she publicly declared that they were guilty. There was to be no clemency in the name of press freedom from the one-time champion of progress and democratic rights. Indeed, the legal apparatus used to convict the pair dated back to the country’s military dictatorship.
Then, after months of relentless campaigning from Reuters, the US government and other Western nations, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed. In total, the men had spent 500 days in prison. Since their release, Suu Kyi’s personal involvement in the case has come to light – with many naming her as the biggest obstacle to their liberty.
Bill Richardson, a member of an international advisory panel on the Rohingya crisis, implored the leader to release the journalists. Her response stunned the veteran US diplomat. “She exploded. I thought that if we were any closer, she was going to slap me,” he recounted. Richardson had backed Suu Kyi for 20 years, but now she’s a human rights abuser “infatuated with her power,” he says.
This much is clear from her ever deepening crackdown on civil liberties. In July 2018, a prominent government critic was arrested for violating sedition laws. His crime: a handful of Facebook posts criticising Suu Kyi’s leadership. She refused to intervene in the case and the man was sentenced to seven years in prison. For critics, it typified her desire to suppress dissent.
What does the future hold?
With Suu Kyi aligning herself with the likes of Victor Orbán, her increasingly illiberal trajectory looks set to stay. If she continues to concede ground to both the military and Buddhist hardliners, the consequences will be grave – least not for Myanmar’s beleaguered religious minorities. Just last month, as Islamophobia festers nationwide, a nationalist group in Yangoon stormed a Muslim prayer hall set up for the holy month of Ramadan. According to reports, the country’s Christian Kachin community is facing increasing persecution also.
Ultimately, the question facing Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar is one of identity. Should the country embrace its inherent multiculturalism – or should it champion just one race, one religion and one language? If Suu Kyi’s government continues to favour the latter, then Myanmar “will proceed further along the path of hatred, violence, war and, ultimately, crimes against humanity and genocide, and will reap nothing other than the condemnation of the international community,” a recent report by human rights group CSW concluded.
While some argue that she’s at the mercy of the country’s military, Suu Kyi’s ruling NLD party has control of both parliament and the presidency. If her ultimate goal is still democratic progress, she has the legislative power to make that happen. But as it stands, over halfway through her government’s five-year term in office, Myanmar is fast becoming a pariah state once again. This would spell economic disaster for the already impoverished nation – but worse still, it would sentence a new, hopeful generation to the same misery endured by the last.