Commentary: Aung San Suu Kyi, a tarnished icon with a fading legacy

Commentary: Aung San Suu Kyi, a tarnished icon with a fading legacy

Revered in opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi's management of Myanmar's Rohingya crisis shows she has been much wobblier in power, says the Financial Times' John Reed.

Aung San Suu Kyi, feted for her years of peaceful opposition to Myanmar's military rulers, has been urged to speak up for the Rohingya, with Muslim nations and the UN leading condemnation of her government. (Photo: AFP/AUNG Kyaw Htet)

BANGKOK: As pillars of smoke rose from Rohingya villages burning in western Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi finally broke her silence on a humanitarian crisis that has uprooted more a quarter of a million people and laid waste to her reputation.

In equivocal language, the freedom fighter and de facto leader of Myanmar said her government was committed to defending the human rights of "all the people of Rakhine", the state engulfed in some of the worst violence since the country's transition from military rule began in 2011. Terrified refugees streaming into Bangladesh told stories of shootings and the torching of homes by security forces and vigilantes.

Aung San Suu Kyi declined to mention by name the mostly Muslim Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence. Instead she accused the media of faking news reports and building an "iceberg of misinformation".

This came after a week in which protesters in Pakistan set a picture of the Myanmar state counsellor's beaming countenance alight and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the country of "genocide".

Malala Yousafzai and Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi's fellow Nobel laureates, all but scolded her to speak up on the Rohingyas' behalf. A petition calling for her to be stripped of her 1991 peace prize had garnered nearly 400,000 signatures as of Friday.

Rohingya refugees allege that "clearance operations" by the army in its offensives against the ARSA resulted in mass killings and the burning of hundreds of villages, sending them across the border. (Photo: AFP/Emrul Kamal)


The scorn heaped on Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to mark a turning point for a woman who for decades enjoyed the admiration of the western world and the long-format ministrations of an adoring press, many of whom compared her to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. With her trademark sarong and jasmine flower in her hair, she remains one of the world's most recognisable person and an embodiment of hope for Myanmar's political transition.

Now Aung San Suu Kyi seems preternaturally out of touch with world opinion. On Thursday, she said it would be "a little unreasonable" to expect her government to solve Rakhine's problems after just 18 months in power.

"We have to take care of our citizens, we have to take care of everybody who is in our country, whether or not they are our citizens," she said, referring to Myanmar's policy of rendering most Rohingya stateless.

The World Food Programme is doling out rice sacks to hungry families as desperate new arrivals, many with no belongings, food or water, crowd relief teams trying to manage the huge influx of people. (Photo: AFP/Munir Uz Zaman)

The received wisdom is that she is powerless to contain the military, which holds on to three key ministries. "You cannot blame her because of the army," says Win Htein, a stalwart of her National League for Democracy (NLD). Even some of her harshest critics acknowledge that it is the military men that should be called to task.

"It is her moral duty to speak up," says U Kyaw Win of the Burma Human Rights Network, who added:

Unfortunately, she is not only siding with the military, she is siding with the propaganda.

If last week felt like a defining moment for the reputation of the 72-year-old leader of Myanmar, perhaps it should not have. Aung San Suu Kyi has long echoed the official line that the Rohingya are "Bengali" nationalists being stirred to sedition by "terrorists". Nationalism and Buddhist extremism have surged with democratisation and the spread of communication technology in Myanmar.

Yet even as Aung San Suu Kyi was being savaged abroad, some hardliners at home see her as too soft. Social media criticised her for being weak in the face of outside pressure over what they see as a Muslim insurgency in Rakhine.

"It's a total mirror image of outrage, and she is caught between these two views," said one diplomat in Myanmar.

Myanmar's army is one of the best funded in Asia. Some 4.5 percent of GDP is devoted to the army budget. (Photo: AFP)


The conflicting forces buffeting her are in keeping with a woman who grew up in two worlds, wreathed in privilege in both. Born in Rangoon (today Yangon) in 1945, her father was assassinated when she was two.

As a child, she was educated at Christian schools in Myanmar and India, where her mother was ambassador, then at Oxford, where she met her future husband, the late Michael Aris.

In 1988, she returned home to tend to her ailing mother, then was swept up in unrest against the ruling junta. This coalesced into the NLD, which seized on the photogenic daughter of Aung San, who is revered as a father of the nation.

She lived for years in and out of house arrest, becoming the figurehead of an international solidarity movement.

After playing a key role in negotiations to end military rule, Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to victory in elections in 2015. Emerging from opposition as a revered but untested leader, she has been wobblier in power, providing little direction in key areas such as the country's struggling economy.

When journalists who had lionised her in captivity hit her with tough questions over Myanmar's poor human rights record, her clipped responses have sounded thin-skinned or tin-eared.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. (Photo: AFP/Romen Gacad)

With Rakhine in flames, Aung San Suu Kyi's honeymoon period in power has been short. Myanmar now faces a full-blown crisis that, according to António Guterres, the UN's secretary-general, risks fuelling more grievances. Western donor nations built Aung San Suu Kyi up. The flaws of this strategy, and of this person, have been on display over the past week.

Tough times lie ahead for "the lady" as she seeks to drive a middle course between her own people, many of whom are in an unforgiving mood about the Rohingya, and the outside world.

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Source: Financial Times/sl