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The Disturbing Stance of Aung San Suu Kyi

In August this year, a United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released its report on the treatment of the Rohingya people by the military of Myanmar since 2011 that has led to a mass exodus of over 700,000 Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. After an extensive investigation, it concluded that there is clear evidence of crimes such as “murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery, persecution and enslavement.” These were committed systematically and brutally on such a large scale that “criminal investigation and prosecution is warranted…under the categories of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”[1] In response to this report, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the violence committed against the Rohingya people.

While the report holds the military leadership of Myanmar responsible for the crimes, public outrage outside Myanmar has been directed to not only the military but also the popular civilian leader of Myanmar, Aug San Suu Kyi. As the champion of democracy under the brutal decades of military dictatorship in Myanmar, Suu Kyi endured around fifteen years of house arrest. For her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She won the hearts of the people in Myanmar and around the world. Since then, she has gained prominence and power in Myanmar. Her political party won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections. Prevented from being President, she is now the State Counsellor of Myanmar which observers say is similar to a Prime Minister. She is often referred to as the “de facto leader of Myanmar.”

Because of her place in the government of Myanmar and her stature in the international arena, Suu Kyi was expected to use her influence to curb the violence by the military or, failing that, to distance herself from the violence by denouncing it or at least by mounting a silent protest. To the disappointment of outsiders, she has defended the military and in fact called the reports of violence “an iceberg of misinformation” even as she expressed sympathy for the Rohingya in their suffering. For her failure to stand up for them, she has been stripped of at least seven honors, including an honorary Canadian citizenship and some Freedom of the City awards (Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle).

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi continues to be highly regarded by people in Myanmar who may denounce the violence against the Rohingya but who defend her by noting how little power she has over the military. This raises some questions. On one hand, presuming she has little power, something many outsiders regret is true, how should she exercise it? Is it fair to expect her to give up that little power for effecting change within Myanmar, however small, by opposing the military and returning to house arrest? Setting aside its value for saving her own reputation, how much can such opposition add to the international pressure on the Myanmar military to stop the violence? On the other hand, did she have to go so far as to defend the military instead of keeping silent? Does she honestly support their violent approach or their goal? It seems too simplistic whether to expect her to denounce the military or to exonerate her defense of the military.