Aung San Suu Kyi; ‘human rights heroine’ no more?

By Cecilia Wang

Aung San Suu Kyi; ‘from human rights heroine to alienated icon,’ such was the title of BBC News’ latest article on the leader of Myanmar, just over a year after the landslide majority won by her civilian government. The victory, once hailed as a beacon of hope for a country struggling after half a century of military dictatorship, failed to crystallise the apotheosis of liberal democracy. As a result, in the same manner as many have sought to place hope entirely upon the shoulders of Ms Suu Kyi, they now place their blame and frustration on her.

Recent news of ethnic conflicts and political suppression has been undeniably disturbing and disappointing. However, identifying Aung San Suu Kyi as the sole culprit is an over-simplistic view to take.

It is natural for the West to expect a swift transition towards peace and democracy from an Oxford-educated Nobel Peace Laureate, but one has to take into consideration the realities in Myanmar. Although head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi has no other choice but to operate carefully within the boundaries of her admittedly limited power. A prominent symbol of this is that she could not serve as President under the military constitution due to the foreign nationality of her family, and therefore had to create the role of ‘state counsellor’ to tailor to her leadership.

The military retain significant influence, allocated a quarter of the Parliamentary seats. They control three vital cabinet posts, namely, defence, home affairs and border affairs, which are the ministries running the anti-insurgency operation in Rakhine State. Without the cooperation of the army, it is foolish to think that Aung San Suu Kyi could wield the power to end ethnic conflicts.

Ms Suu Kyi faces a delicate issue over her attitude towards the military. Whilst the latter no doubt epitomise the opposite of her aspired peaceful and democratic rule, Aung San Suu Kyi could not risk alienating their support if she seeks to change the military Constitution.

The unacceptable persecution of the Rohingya Muslims has been a long-standing issue in Myanmar. They constitute just a roughly one million people minority in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country of 53 million. It is telling that Aung San Suu Kyi faces the opposite problem at home, where she is criticised by enemies as being too friendly to Muslims. Ms Suu Kyi is in a tricky position; the army fears she will be too soft on the rebels, whilst many minority Muslims see her as no different to her imperious and indifferent Burmese predecessors. The Rohingya are disliked by those who form the backbone of the NLD’s support; defending them would cost her significant political capital, a move perhaps unwise at a time when she is yet to solidify her newly-gained power.

The result is a moderate balancing act. Aung San Suu Kyi issued the Rohingya ID cards which acknowledge that they are residents; starting a process to consider their citizenship claims. Yet this process has no assurances of eventually granting those who apply with genuine citizenship. Although only approximately 1,600 Rohingya have so far applied for an ID of this kind, Aung San Suu Kyi has nonetheless made some progress.

The struggle towards peace is also part of a wider problem. Southeast Asia has long been engulfed in ‘tribal feuds.’ With over 100 ethnicity groups, Myanmar is not alone in her plight. And as Aung San Suu Kyi herself articulated, “My attitude to peace is rather based on the Burmese definition of peace – it really means removing all the negative factors that destroy peace in this world, so peace does not mean just putting an end to violence or to war, but to all other factors that threaten peace, such as discrimination, such as inequality, poverty.” The road to peace seems destined to be long and thorny.

The announcement of Aung San Suu Kyi’s cabinet was ridiculed as several of her ministers were exposed for holding counterfeit degrees. She did not have much choice. The inevitable legacy of her decades of political exile is that the only people with experience in government were associated with the previous regime. Aung San Suu Kyi is said to have a small network, slow to allow newcomers into her inner circle; a repercussion of her house arrest and persecution.

There is clearly room for progress and improvement. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Ms Suu Kyi has been the best-known image of Burmeses’ struggle for democracy; it is implausible to find someone equal in stature to lead Myanmar forward. Aung San Suu Kyi stands as the country’s best hope.

As a leader who chose to sacrifice the better part of two decades fighting the military junta, much of it under house arrest and separated from her family, Aung San Suu Kyi is no idealist. As she herself put it, “There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk.” Let’s hope the latter arrives soon.

Photograph: Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr.

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