Why is Aung San Suu Kyi silent on abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s muted reaction to a damning UN report of abuses against the Rohingya is the most recent controversy to undermine her. Here's a look at why Myanmar’s nascent democracy seems to be failing the people.

Muslim Rohingya demonstrate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, demanding a stop to the killings and oppression of their people in Myanmar in July. Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty Images
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

When Aung San Suu Kyi read the UN flash report on northern Rakhine, the Nobel peace laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government “seemed to be genuinely moved”, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted.

The document contains testimonies of babies having their throats slit, mass rapes, torture, and villages being razed to the ground. It paints a shocking picture of actions against the Muslim Rohingya population, which the UN said likely amounted to crimes against humanity. The report, issued on February 3 by UN OHCHR, suggested hundreds of people had been killed.

Yet Suu Kyi – who was already facing international criticism for her silence on the plight of the mainly stateless Rohingya – did not make any public statement reflecting the emotions reported by Al Hussein. Instead it was left to a spokesman for the president’s office to express concern over the “extremely serious allegations”.

The report’s contents contradicted denials by the military and civilian government of almost all allegations of abuses since “clearance operations” were launched in northern Rakhine following assaults on border police posts on October 9, which left nine dead, claimed by a new insurgent group, Harakah al-Yakin. The group says it stands for Rohingya rights.

A government investigation was announced, with action promised if “clear evidence” of abuses is found – though as the investigation is being led by politicians with military links its impartiality has been questioned. Meanwhile clearance operations were recently declared to be at an end.

But the country’s long-awaited champion of democracy has again failed to speak out as a national leader, and questions are once again being asked of her commitment to human rights and relationship with the military.

In his award winning memoir From the Land of Green Ghosts, Pascal Khoo Thwe, of the Kayan Padaung minority, recalls Suu Kyi's famous speech during the 1988 uprising when she declared she could not "as her father's daughter, remain indifferent" to what was happening under military rule. Even the ethnic "rebels", he said, began to see her as the only person who could bring democracy to Myanmar, he wrote:

“Above all we saw someone expressing all our aspirations, confronting the regime and its gun barrels succinctly and eloquently and with not a hint of fear. At last we had found our leader, someone whom we trusted implicitly to restore the lost freedom of Burma …”

Was their trust in her leadership and courage unfounded?

When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party swept to electoral victory in November 2015 it was heralded as the dawn of democracy in Myanmar after decades of military rule. Her government finally assumed power in April 2016, and, despite the military’s guaranteed 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and its continued control over constitutional change and key ministries, it was a time of great optimism for those who had fallen victim to the generals.

After all, this was the woman who, in her 1989 essay “In Quest for Democracy”, declared: “It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless.”

Now, almost a year after her government took the helm, faith that the Lady, as she’s widely known, will defend human rights and stand up against the military is fading for many, and her silence deafening on a number of key issues.

Few are more “helpless” than the stateless and those displaced by conflict.

“I am not going to go now into the extent to which she should have done more or less. There has to be some responsibility,” the UN’s Al Hussein said to Reuters when the report was released.

Yet not all in Myanmar are disillusioned with Suu Kyi. In many ways, describing Myanmar under her rule is a tale of two countries.

In the commercial capital Yangon, infrastructure is developing apace and mobile phones, a luxury three years ago, are in use everywhere. Impoverished children still pick through bins for food, but an emerging middle class is now enjoying meals from foreign food chains such as KFC that are springing up around the city.

However, young mothers fleeing military shelling in the states of Kachin and Shan, the dozens jailed for criticising the military or civilian government members online or for staging peaceful protests and those campaigning for the rights of the Rohingya tell a very different story.

To Myanmar authorities, the majority of Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the October 9 assaults are considered an attack on the country’s sovereignty, and those responsible are terrorists. Human rights, the implication is, must come secondary to “stopping terrorism”.

Given the common antagonism towards the Rohingya in Myanmar, that message, presented in official government statements and via State Media, which also sought to discredit those who reported on allegations of abuse, is widely accepted by much of the public. This writer is among those who faced criticism from senior government figures.

The situation was not helped by the dissemination of various fake or exaggerated accounts on social media of abuses against the Rohingya.

According to some, Suu Kyi was among those who accepted the military denials of abuses. More than one diplomat who was contacted for this article described how she “lives in a bubble”. They suggested her sources of information are a tiny number of trusted acolytes – many of whom share the prejudices against the Rohingya that permeate wider society.

However, even if this were true, the State Counsellor is also in regular contact with international actors and cannot have been unaware of their concerns.

Indeed, in a rare interview given in early December to Channel News Asia while on a visit to Singapore, Suu Kyi effectively told the international community to keep out of Myanmar’s affairs.

“I would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” she said.

Her rebuke came after Muslim majority Malaysia declared that what was happening to the Rohingya amounted to “ethnic cleansing”.

“It doesn’t help if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation, in spite of the fact that there were attacks against police outposts,” Suu Kyi told CNA.

It is not just in relation to Rakhine that concerns are being raised about Suu Kyi’s willingness to side with the generals. Tens of thousands of civilians in Kachin and northern Shan have been forced to flee their homes because of fighting between Myanmar’s Armed Forces, the Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed organisations as peace talks fail to achieve ceasefire agreements with a number of key groups.

So when in November Suu Kyi described the Tatmadaw’s “valiant effort” in these areas – as her civilian government refused humanitarian organisations access to those displaced by the fighting including large numbers of women and children – many ethnic minority rights’ activists expressed outrage.

Her refusal to challenge the Tatmadaw version of events appears to be boosting the military’s popularity among the Bamar majority. There’s a groundswell in opinion that the long-vilified Tatmadaw has become a defender of the nation.

And if the military’s new-found support is mostly related to its activities against the Rohingya, sympathy for its victims in Kachin and northern Shan is not so great in the Bamar heartlands either.

Rewatching an Al Jazeera documentary Burma: Saffron Revolution 2007, which recorded street protests by tens of thousands of monks and civilians against the then-ruling Junta, it was striking to listen to ordinary people in Yangon condemn the generals. "We will never forget," one man says to camera.

A decade on and it seems memories are shorter than people imagined at the time. Suu Kyi’s perhaps among them.

For diplomats and analysts, two dominant theories vie to explain her silence on allegations of rights abuses.

The first is that in her ambitions to maintain her personal power and secure the future of the Bamar ethnic majority, she is willing to sacrifice the ethnic minorities to the military’s ambitions.

The second is those demanding the Lady stop the military’s activities in Rakhine are failing to grasp the complexity of power-sharing and that she simply does not hold sway to do so. To speak out against the generals, some fear could even provoke a coup.

Yet, while she has no direct influence over the military and the constitution allows for the military to take over in the event of a national crisis, she is not powerless to intervene in other ways. Her influence over much of the population remains strong. Without directly criticising the generals, her words could do a great deal to counteract support for their more brutal actions.

And if she does rely on the goodwill of the military to retain her position, they too rely on her continued role as a figurehead for Myanmar’s nascent “democracy” to maintain international goodwill. To depose her would undo the years of work the generals have done to make Myanmar acceptable on the international stage.

If fear is making Suu Kyi reluctant to speak out, it may speak to darker things than mere loss of personal power.

Last month’s brutal and public assassination of NLD lawyer U Ko Ni, the constitutional expert whose efforts enabled Suu Kyi to assume the state counsellor position even when she was barred from the presidency, sent shock waves throughout the country and raised concerns for others pushing for reform.

Again Suu Kyi remained silent; there was no public message of condolence for his family. Her silence at a time when the country so desperately needed the voice of a leader stunned Myanmar and foreigner commentators alike.

Ko Ni, one of the few prominent Muslims in the NLD, was denied the opportunity to stand in the 2015 election for the party he had served for years, when Suu Kyi oversaw the rejection of all Muslim candidates from her party’s list. Yet he remained loyal and continued his work to promote interfaith harmony despite the many threats his family said he received.

But if it is fear of losing her position that has directed her silence over rights abuses, Suu Kyi has betrayed her most famous principle:

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

If such fear does lie at the root of the apparent contradiction between the Lady’s former words and current silence, what hope then to free the country from the terrors and misery inflicted on so many for so long?

Fiona MacGregor is an independent journalist based in Yangon.