Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace has been dra­matic – but are her han ds tied by Burma’s army?

Irish Independent - - WORLD NEWS - John Simp­son John Simp­son is the BBC’s World Af­fairs Edi­tor

ON the posters at demon­stra­tions world­wide, her fangs drip blood. The woman who ded­i­cated her life to lib­er­at­ing the peo­ple of Burma has mor­phed into a mon­ster.

Up to now, Aung San Suu Kyi has ei­ther stayed silent about the cru­elty of the Burmese army or made quiet ex­cuses for it. That makes her com­plicit – but is she a prisoner of the mil­i­tary or their will­ing fel­low-trav­eller? Those who ad­mired her dur­ing her days of strug­gle have been hop­ing it is the for­mer. As the weeks have gone by, though, that has seemed harder to be­lieve.

Next Tues­day, she will make a tele­vised speech in Ran­goon, clar­i­fy­ing her po­si­tion. On that speech will de­pend her en­tire rep­u­ta­tion.

De­press­ingly, her si­lence about the Ro­hingya makes her far more pop­u­lar at home. There is lit­tle or no sym­pa­thy for them among eth­nic Burmese, mostly Bud­dhists, who form the great ma­jor­ity of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion. The Ro­hingya, pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lims, are seen as out­siders, squat­ters, aliens, crim­i­nals; and when Suu Kyi re­jects crit­i­cism of the Burmese army’s be­hav­iour as “a huge ice­berg of mis­in­for­ma­tion” from “ter­ror­ists”, her peo­ple like her all the more for it.

This charm­ing, gen­tle coun­try is show­ing a dis­turb­ing de­gree of cru­elty. A num­ber of Bud­dhist or­gan­i­sa­tions have worked hard to block any out­side hu­man­i­tar­ian aid to the Ro­hingya.

A de­light­ful man I knew, who stuck with Aung San Suu Kyi through ev­ery­thing, was quoted the other day as say­ing: “These peo­ple have noth­ing to do with us. They don’t even look like us.”

A Burmese of­fi­cer told a BBC col­league of mine that the dozens of vil­lages de­stroyed by the army in Rakhine state had been burned by mil­i­tant Ro­hingyas them­selves.

And when some­one asked the of­fi­cer about the ac­cu­sa­tions of rape, he an­swered, “Where is the proof? Look at those women who are mak­ing these claims” – point­ing to a group of Ro­hingya women – “would any­one want to rape them?” It was the kind of thing that you used to hear Bos­nian Serbs say­ing about Mus­lim refugees out­side Sara­jevo: the same bru­tal josh­ing, the

I in­ter­viewed her and was in­evitably cap­ti­vated

same cyn­i­cal racism.

The Ba­mar peo­ple, from whose name the Bri­tish got “Burma”, con­sti­tute twothirds of the pop­u­la­tion. The re­main­ing third is made up of dozens of rel­a­tively small groups like the Ro­hingya.

In 1982 the then mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship de­cided to bar the Ro­hingya from be­com­ing Burmese cit­i­zens. To this day the gov­ern­ment of Myan­mar (its al­ter­na­tive name) does not of­fi­cially use the term “Ro­hingya” and usu­ally refers to them as “Ben­galis”.

For seven years now, Aung San Suu Kyi (right) has had to dirty her hands with all the com­pro­mises that power had brought her. She de­cided not to grant cit­i­zen­ship to the Ro­hingya, but sim­ply to give them res­i­dency cards in­stead. That, and the vi­o­lent re­sis­tance of a small group of mostly young Ro­hingya, laid the en­tire group open to the cur­rent wave of re­pres­sion.

Nowa­days, The Lady must feel that things were so much sim­pler and more clean-cut when she was a prisoner, ad­mired ev­ery­where for her no­bil­ity un­der bru­tal con­di­tions.

When she was re­leased in Nov 2010 af­ter seven years un­der house ar­rest, and be­ing a prisoner for years be­fore that, she for­gave her gaol­ers and pledged her­self to work with them to cre­ate a more hu­mane so­ci­ety.

It was mag­nif­i­cent. And so was she. It was one of the great mo­ments of my en­tire ca­reer to be there on the night she was freed.

The full struc­ture of the po­lice state was still in place, and my col­leagues and I were fol­lowed ev­ery­where, usu­ally by se­cret po­lice­men on or­ange mo­torscoot­ers.

At the end of the street where Aung San Suu Kyi had her de­light­ful lake­side house, there was al­ways a crowd of po­lice agents stand­ing around with cam­eras, record­ing ev­ery­one who went near her.

And then, on a drench­ingly hot night, a big crowd gath­ered and the po­lice fi­nally took the bar­ri­cades away. Ev­ery­one swarmed down the street and gath­ered out­side the high gates to her com­pound, push­ing and shov­ing each other in their de­ter­mi­na­tion to catch a glimpse of Daw Suu when she fi­nally ap­peared. The next day we went to in­ter­view her. I was, in­evitably, cap­ti­vated. Even so, I asked her whether it wasn’t her duty now to use her un­doubted strength as a po­lit­i­cal leader and call for wide­spread demon­stra­tions to force the mil­i­tary aside al­to­gether. No, she said, that would be much too danger­ous. It was nec­es­sary to work with the mil­i­tary to bring peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to Burma.

It seemed like an ad­mirable ap­proach. Seven years later, though, this will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise with a dis­tinctly un­pleas­ant group of men has made her a prisoner all over again. I have no doubt that she sym­pa­thises with the plight of the Ro­hingya; but she seems to feel it would be too danger­ous to go against what the mil­i­tary, and the ma­jor­ity of Burmese cit­i­zens, want. That way could lie civil vi­o­lence and the col­lapse of her demo­cratic gov­ern­ment.

And yet it was The Lady her­self who de­scribed with char­ac­ter­is­tic clarity the po­si­tion she is now in. In a speech in 1990, the year be­fore her No­bel Peace Prize, she said: “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.”

Un­less she can change the en­tire world’s per­cep­tion of her in her speech on Tues­day, that will be her po­lit­i­cal epi­taph.

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