By Shahana Nair Joshi
Aung San Suu Kyi— a leader whose name once evoked emotions of hope, inspiration and resilience and who was once a symbol of democracy and championed the need for an equitable power dynamic in the world— now lives under harsh criticism for maintaining a jarring silence over the alleged genocide that is rampantly taking place in her country. Criticism against her has been pouring in from all corners of the world, including from her fellow Nobel laureates. Most recently she was stripped of her “Freedom of Oxford’ title granted to her by the Oxford Council and the ‘Freedom of Dublin City’ award bestowed upon her by the Dublin City Council. While these reactions may seem obvious in the face of what seems like a leader’s apathy in the face of a humanitarian crisis, it is important to also understand the context within which the role Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of state, is defined.
Making sense of the silence
Even though Myanmar held open elections in 2015, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won by an absolute majority, the government formed what the Economist Intelligence Unit rightly called “a hybrid regime”- with the military still possessing 25% of the seats in parliament. The Burmese army calls this “disciplined democracy” where there is room for debate and discussion, but the most strategic departments for governance and decision-making are in the army’s hands. Because she has a British husband (now deceased) and British children, Aung San Suu Kyi is not eligible for presidency, according to the constitution drafted by the army. She is currently the State Counselor and not the absolute authority on National affairs.
To be more specific, as State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi’s portfolio includes Energy and Electricity, Foreign Affairs, and she is also simultaneously the Minister of the President’s Office. The military, on the other hand, controls the more key ministries such as Home Affairs and Defense and Border Affairs. This power dynamic clearly demonstrates the complexity of Myanmar’s current political structure and the challenges the country is facing with transitioning into a fully formed democracy. If Aung San Suu Kyi does not even have power over the country’s defense and internal affairs, can it be fair to hold her solely responsible for human rights violations committed by the military Junta within the borders of Myanmar? I am inclined to think not.
Her recent reaction, or rather the lack of, with regards to the Rohingya refugee crisis has further evoked negative responses from the international community. The backlash has been tremendous as many have condemned her as one of the most bafflingly complicit leaders of all time.
Leaders all over the world are urging her to make a statement to strongly condemn the acts of violence taking place in Myanmar. But what they fail to understand is that she became a beacon of democracy and human rights incidentally. She is and will always be a politician first— a politician who has received the reigns of a nation so complex in its form of governance and political structure that she needs to navigate this situation with absolute dexterity.
Although making comparisons between perpetrators of war crimes may seem unnecessary, singling out Aung Sang Suu Kyi for her country’s humanitarian crisis seems a tad unfair. There is a burning refugee crisis in the Middle East which, despite having the world’s attention, has not resulted in a single leader being held responsible, let alone targeted for any of the related atrocities. And, as is the case in the rest of the world, there are multiple actors involved in Myanmar’s humanitarian crisis, not just one leader, who is now being targeted as the only perpetrator of the plight of the Rohingya.
While Oxford University wasted no time in bringing her picture down from its main corridor, the painting of Winston Churchill, for example, still holds a place in its hallowed halls— the same Churchill who was responsible for the tragic Bengal Famine in 1943 which led to the death of close to 4 million people. When asked about the incident he went on record to speak of the famine victims and said, “They are beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own doing.” In a war cabinet meeting he also went on to say that they were “breeding like rabbits”.
So, are the Western world and those holding financial influence and power excused for humanitarian crimes while only the developing world is pushed to take responsibility for the way their marginalized populations are treated? Apathy much worse than that shown to the Rohingya has been openly displayed in many parts of the world and has not been acknowledged, let alone addressed.
On researching for this piece, I could not help but notice the apparent bias in terms of reportage. This is not to suggest that Suu Kyi’s silence is not one to be questioned or even frowned upon, but one also cannot help but notice that the most publicized and shared reports from major news sources give no real background of what the political structure of Myanmar is. There are very few reports that clearly talk about why one needs to consider her position before having everyone from humanitarian organizations to members of popular rock bands (U2) come out in protest of a woman who they once held in such high esteem. The herd mentality of the media that surrounds the issue is sometimes beyond any legitimate comprehension.
The way forward
What needs to be done with immediate effect is for the world to understand the Burmese political power dynamic, and hold the military accountable. By pointing fingers at Aung San Suu Kyi, we are merely shifting the focus from the actual perpetrators of these crimes to someone who is just about finding her feet in the corridors of a transitional democracy. For someone who was not too long ago hailed as the empress of human rights, it appears rather extreme for the international community to deem her as the face of the nation in the time of a humanitarian emergency. Regarding the Burmese military, Aung San Suu Kyi is currently treading a political tightrope. Antagonizing the military at this point may come at a very heavy price— possibly another 15 years of house arrest. Can she really afford that? And would that really improve the situation?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s top priority right now is to find a way to work with the army and not against them. The West needs to now figure out how the crisis can best be solved by dealing with the army directly, who, as things stand, has complete control over the security situation inside the country and on the borders and who currently do not consider the Rohingya legitimate citizens of Myanmar.
However, there are signs that positive developments may be on the way. Recently, the United States took its toughest stance yet by imposing sanctions against General Maung Maung Soe after he admitted to overseeing the human rights violations committed against the Rohingya Muslims. This is an action in the right direction, in terms of holding the real perpetrators accountable. Imposing more conditional sanctions like these, could both provide some respite to the Rohingya and also help move Myanmar towards the path to being a real democracy with equal human rights for all its residents.
Shahana Nair Joshi holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a writer/researcher with Oxford Omnia and focuses on migration, refugees, human rights and the media and politics that influence these issues.