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