In a remarkable piece in the New Yorker magazine recently the article reveals the inner conflicts of Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, both internal and external, in facing the current Rohingya crisis.
The article appropriately titled “Fallen Idol” chronicles the rise of a rather unknown foreign educated woman from a non-political background to a world hero for her championship of democracy and human rights in a country long dominated by military dictatorship.
She was identified as an icon of freedom of speech and democratic rights of people alongside such figures as Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines -- leaders who had faced long imprisonment and sufferings in the hands of their countries’ dictators.
Suu Kyi earned sympathy and support of all freedom and democracy lovers of the world for her bold stand against the dictatorial regime. Indeed, the ground swell of support for her cause and that of her country would lead her first to win the Nobel Prize for peace and finally force the hands of her oppressors to release her from captivity.
Her subsequent role in changing the political landscape of Myanmar with first ever free elections in many years would make her the de facto head of the government, albeit not in title. And that is the main contention now. Does Suu Kyi have the real power in Myanmar, or is she is a simply a front for the junta that allowed her back in politics?
The question has become more forceful with the Rohingya crisis with hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians hounded out of their hearth and homes in Myanmar for ethnic reasons and Suu Kyi’s reticence or seeming inability to sop this human rights violation.
How can a human rights icon not speak out against repression of a religious minority in her own country, under her own watch? Why has she never asked her own military to stop this violence?
People point out that despite Suu Kyi winning handily the elections of 2013 and her party having the majority of parliamentary seats, the army has an oversize influence in her government. Under the provisions of the new constitution written by the army, the army retains the portfolios of defense, home affairs, border guards, and a quarter of the seats in the parliament.
The army has also a sizeable control of several other ministries of the government through holdovers from the previous military regimes. Viewed from this perspective, one can speculate that Suu Kyi may not be the actual key to her government.
But is that the reality? The article I referred to attempted to answer some of these questions by delving into the upbringing and background of Suu Kyi. It is ironic but true -- Suu Kyi is the daughter of the founder of the Burmese Independence Army, the predecessor of the modern Myanmar army.
Suu Kyi’s hands are not tied by the military as much as some would like to think. She is tied by her own desire to retain power
According to her own statement, she feels great attachment to the armed forces because as a child she was “cared for by my father’s soldiers.” In fact, the love and hate between Suu Kyi and the army is captured by the army’s overall treatment of Suu Kyi during her long captivity when her life was never put in danger.
Her subsequent release by the army and allowing of a quasi-democratic process in Myanmar was a product of the military junta’s desire to open the country to Western investment and rapprochement with Western countries by letting her party to contest the elections.
The junta found in Suu Kyi, the new Western idol, a bridge to connect the country with the West. And Suu Kyi settled with the junta even though the junta drafted constitution debarred her from becoming officially the head of the country. She remained satisfied as a de facto ruler with the vague title of state counsellor.
Suu Kyi’s acceptance of the terms of endearment offered by the junta can be explained in two ways. One, this was a compromise to usher a democratic government in Myanmar even though it meant some personal sacrifice for her (in that she could not become president).
Second, it would afford her to exercise power that she would otherwise not have. In accepting the terms she wanted to retain the army’s support in the parliament because she wants ultimately the office of the president.
Does the strange title of Suu Kyi in the governance of Myanmar or the control of vital organs of the government by Myanmar army absolve of her responsibilities to stop the violence against an ethnic group in her country? Definitely not.
Despite this vague title of state counsellor, Suu Kyi is both symbolic and real head of government to her country and the world. She is, in reality, head of the cabinet and the principal coordinator of all ministries in her cabinet. That is why a statement coming from her is to be treated as the final official word of her government.
The biggest puzzle, therefore, is how much of the atrocity against the Rohingya is being executed with her consent or ignorance. In her own statement to her nation a few weeks ago, Suu Kyi admitted for the first time that there were acts of violence in Rakhine state, but she also blamed Rohingya militants for initiating the violence.
Suu Kyi’s hands are not tied by the military as much as some would like to think. She is tied by her own desire to retain power and change the constitution to allow her to become president, none of which can happen without the army’s support. The New Yorker article mentions how her own party follows a military-like hierarchy, and Suu Kyi values discipline and loyalty above everything.
Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the army’s action against the Rohingya is because she does not want to displease the army. Her burden for now is the international criticism of her conduct, not the Rohingya. She is hoping that with support from China and passive reactions from Russia and India, she will be successful in deflecting the criticism against her by stubbornly referring to the violence as anti-terrorism action by her government, but not for long.
She will have to do more than rhetorically address the Rohingya issue as a mere law and order situation arising from terrorism, which includes accepting the Rohingya back, and giving them safe haven. Otherwise the burden on her shoulder will turn her from an icon of democracy to an icon of hypocrisy.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a former World Bank staff member and a civil servant.