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How the Rohingya crisis destroyed Suu Kyi’s legacy

  • Published at 12:01 am October 28th, 2019
Myanmar-Aung San Suu Kyi
Photo: AFP

Is she the only one to blame?

The Rohingya crisis has dramatically changed the portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Western media, which once romantically touted her as “The Lady,” has now turned on her. Amnesty International withdrew the prestigious “Ambassador of Conscience” award from her. Petitions, calling for stripping her of her Nobel Prize, are being signed.

It seems that Suu Kyi is on the receiving end of most of the criticism relating to the Rohingya genocide. Considered to be one of the most respected world leaders even a few years ago, she has now become an international pariah.

But can she alone be blamed for the Rohingya genocide?

Most people aware of the civil-military dynamics in Myanmar know that the Tatmadaw is still the most powerful political force in the country. The military’s hold on power was weakened after the 2015 election, in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory.

However, the role of their military in national politics was far from over. The 2008 constitution guaranteed the military an influential position in Myanmar’s decision-making process. The Tatmadaw controls the ministries of home affairs, defence, and border affairs.

25% of the parliament seats are reserved for military representatives. The military runs the country’s economy. It has major stakes in the country’s business sector. Thus, despite forming the government and occupying the position of “state counsellor,” Suu Kyi has little say in the country’s defence or national security policies.

As such, it is not hard to see that she has no control over the country’s Rohingya policy either. However, the Rohingya crisis has given the Tatmadaw an opportunity to ruin her carefully crafted persona on the global stage, especially in the west. 

It was widely believed that the NLD government would pursue a more “pro-Western” foreign policy and bring the country back into the international community by breaking decades of military-imposed isolation. However, such a possibility is a clear threat to Tatmadaw’s grip on power.

The Rohingya crisis has proven to be a golden opportunity for the Myanmar military to drive a wedge between Suu Kyi and her Western allies, who are increasingly seeing her as the mirror image of the military. 

The crisis put Suu Kyi in a position where she had to choose between her larger than life image abroad and her popularity at home. Like any crafty politician, it did not take her long to set her priorities. Given the prevailing anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hatred among Myanmar’s Buddhists, she openly supported the military’s deadly assault on Rohingya civilians. 

Her stances regarding the Rohingya crisis have alienated her core supporters in the West, who once vigorously campaigned to free her from house arrest and publicized her cause in international arena. 

Many people who see Suu Kyi as a symbo’ of hope and democracy were certainly disheartened by her stance on the Rohingya crisis. However, they neither understand the ethno-politics of Myanmar nor Suu Kyi’s motivations. Her struggle for Myanmar is deeply personal.

It’s about preserving the legacy and vision of her father General Aung San, a military leader himself. Suu Kyi is neither Gandhi nor Mandela. She is a politician who understands realpolitik. She might not be the perfect liberal democrat, but she is probably the last and only hope for Myanmar’s democracy.

Alienating her would only strengthen Tatmadaw’s genocidal projects against Myanmar’s minorities. 

Rubiat Saimum is a Research Officer at the Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD).