Aung San Suu Kyi’s name was once synonymous with the struggle against oppression when she had been under house arrest for almost a decade during military rule in Myanmar.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, she called for “a world free from the displaced, the homeless, and the hopeless.”
But she has missed perhaps her greatest opportunity to make good on those words as the leader of Myanmar’s first civilian government after a half-century of military rule.
Suu Kyi has watched as 270,000 minority Rohingya Muslims -- one-quarter of their population -- have fled Myanmar over the past two weeks, escaping a bloody military crackdown in which soldiers set fire to homes and shot civilians as they tried to escape, according to accounts published by human rights groups.
Many have been crammed into muddy, overcrowded camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, whose authorities this week raised concerns that Myanmar’s military was planting land mines along the border while civilians fled.
Dozens have drowned in river crossings. In displacement camps inside Myanmar, Rohingya activists say the government has blocked delivery of food and humanitarian supplies.
Suu Kyi’s questionable stance
As condemnations pour in from across the world, Suu Kyi has defended not the displaced Rohingya but the army, saying critics of the crackdown were being deceived by “a huge iceberg of misinformation.”
The army calls its actions “clearance operations” aimed at Rohingya insurgents who attacked police on August 25, killing 12 officers.
Reconciling an activist’s ideals with the hard realities of governing is never easy, but rarely has an international icon fallen so fast as Suu Kyi.
As condemnations pour in from across the world, Suu Kyi has defended not the displaced Rohingya but the army, saying critics of the crackdown were being deceived by ‘a huge iceberg of misinformation’
Her tepid response to the Rohingya crisis has tarnished a reputation built over the 15 years she spent under house arrest opposing military dictators in the country formerly known as Burma.
The United Nations chief has warned that ethnic cleansing could be taking place.
Two other Nobel Peace Prize winners, South Africa’s Desmond Tutu and 20-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, have implored Suu Kyi, 72, to speak up. Other commentators have urged the Nobel Committee to revoke her prize.
“She has a responsibility to give protection to civilians,” said a prominent Rohingya activist in Myanmar, who requested anonymity because authorities have warned people against criticising the military campaign.
“And yet she is actively engaging with the army in terms of its operations to expel an entire population. She is a part of it.”
After leading her National League of Democracy party to an overwhelming win in 2015 parliamentary elections -- and then devising the powerful post of state counselor to bypass a law that prevented her from becoming president -- Suu Kyi faced tremendous expectations in turning around one of Asia’s poorest countries, one still wracked by several long-running insurgencies.
The Obama administration lifted economic sanctions in 2016, rewarding Myanmar’s democratic transition, although by that point there were serious questions about Suu Kyi’s commitment to the ideas expressed in her Nobel speech.
She has consistently declined to condemn abuses against the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority of more than one million people in a country that is 90% Buddhist, often saying that Buddhists have suffered too.
Her government has echoed the military’s view that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many trace their roots in Myanmar back several generations, and has continued a policy of denying them citizenship and other basic rights.
Mehedi Hassan is a freelance contributor.