Written by Anna Plunkett.
Since late August the world has been witness to a rapidly developing refugee crises unfolding in Myanmar, the result of a vicious counter-insurgency operation conducted by the Tatmadaw that has caused over 500,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh to escape rape, torture, and death. These horrific crimes have brought Aung San Suu Kyi, the once global icon for pro-democracy struggles, under great criticism. Many critics have called for the revoking of her Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”, despite knowing the committee do not have the power to do so. She has, however, been stripped of other awards such as the Freedom of Oxford for her lack of action during the crisis. The international community are holding her to account as “de-facto” ruler of Myanmar – the question is should we be so quick to judge?
The military still holds the reins to power and they are waging war in the borderlands. This is not a new reality – ceasefires broke down in Kachin and Northern Shan state in 2011 and there have been continued attacks on the Rohingya since Burma’s fledgling democracy took flight.
Daw Suu rose to international attention after the bloody repression of the 1988 pre-democracy uprising and won hearts with her suffering and isolation under house arrest throughout the 1990s. Her dedication to non-violence and unwavering support for the struggle of the Burmese people won her national and international support. It is due to her international connections – her young British family and work in the UN – that Burma’s pro-democracy struggle was brought into the international arena. She has been the face of hope for many around the world. Her personal struggle and story are so entwined with that of Burma’s that she has been the personification of Burma’s pro-democracy struggle.
Her international network has ensured that Burma has not been forgotten and her story has captured the imagination. In part, this has been based on her charisma, dry humour, and genteel manner, particularly against the backdrop of the might and violence of the Tatmadaw. Under military rule she was a beacon of hope encased within the gilded cage of her house arrest in University Avenue, a period that lasted almost all the 1990s and well into the early 2000s. Yet it is also this period, in which she was silenced with no contact to the outside world, that her adoring fans and supporters consigned her to a pedestal with saintly status. Like the statue upon it, she was silent and symbolic – the beautiful face of Burma’s pro-democracy struggle.
Yet since 2012 and, more importantly, since 2015, she has been neither silent nor symbolic – she is now a war-wearied, determined politician. Often viewed as stubborn and blunt, she has led her party, the NLD, a political force to be reckoned with, to victory and has focused on ensuring that the horrors of the 1990 election do not repeat themselves. But it is important that we remember two things about Daw Suu in this new political reality – she is both pragmatic and a backroom politician.
These truths are not new – they have shaped her political career. It was her negotiation with the military that reduced the violence of the coup of 1988, her work with senior members of the military to negotiate the signing of the new constitution and the holding of the 2010 elections. She has worked to negotiate her own release from house arrest but has also worked to ensure the release of other activists. This has been her preferred method of negotiation throughout her time in Burma and is the role she always envisioned for herself.
People have criticised her for her lack of outcry at the Rohingya crisis – and rightly so. However, the political and personal realities demonstrate that to do so would be at best a concern and at worst extremely dangerous. Burma is not the transitioning democracy it appears on the surface – the military continues to dominate the government and the legislature. Daw Suu is not allowed to become president despite her party’s landslide victory. The military still holds the reins of power and they are waging war in the borderlands. This is not a new reality – ceasefires broke down in Kachin and Northern Shan state in 2011 and there have been continued attacks on the Rohingya since Burma’s fledgling democracy took flight. Since then her government has attempted, with little effect, to promote peace in the face of increasing violence.
This leaves her in a tenuous position. She could, and may, be attempting her customary backroom negotiations – we cannot be sure. Or she could, and as many think should, be speaking out against the military. The second of these options, though undoubtedly favourable to the international community, could be a risky strategy for the experienced leader, negotiator, and pragmatist. Her legitimacy and popularity in Burma are linked to her ties to the army. She is, after all, the daughter of the father of the army and the modern Burmese state, an institution which remains extremely popular with the Burmese people, and continues to dominate its political scene. It is this relationship that has permitted Aung San Suu Kyi to rise and has shaped her views on the institution itself. Very much her father’s daughter, she has great respect and love for the product of his labour; as a child, she wished to join the army herself. Throughout her campaigns for democracy, she has rarely explicitly criticised the army but instead promoted change. After over a decade under house arrest and many standoffs with the army on a personal level, including a four-day stand-off just outside of Rangoon, she is fully aware of the power they wield.
Moreover, since 2012 the military and the USDP have attempted to gain mass support from the public through Buddhist nationalism. The USDP promoted themselves as the defenders of the Burmese Buddhist nation to solidify their mass support base and gain the support of the sangha. Though this has had mixed effects it has given space for the growth of an extremist religious nationalism focused on anti-Islamic sentiment that to varying degrees has grown in popularity. It failed to win the USDP the 2015 election but has left Burma divided.
This is the environment Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself trying to control – a divided country with grave undertones of Buddhist nationalism, an increasingly violent borderland especially in Rakhine state, and a position of power that is precarious at best. No longer the silent saint, her idealist leadership, in tension with her pragmatist approach, is failing to win the support of her countrymen, the army or the international community. However, she has not changed – she remains staunchly pro-democracy, she continues to focus on reform, and she is respectful of the military. To risk her present position by calling out the army on their actions in such a public way threatens to bring down all the progress she has made and could make those memories of complete isolation an all too new reality. That is not to say her actions are right or fair – the atrocities occurring are unspeakably horrific and need to be ended. But it is not she who has changed or faltered, it is our perception of her – we cannot condemn a woman for not wanting to reside on a pedestal forever.
Anna Plunkett is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.