She has one day to save her reputation
Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace has been dramatic – but has it been deserved? John Simpson considers her next move
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, and the slight figure in pastel silks, admired around the world for her gentleness and bravery, seems to have vanished altogether. 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 fellowtraveller? Those who admired her during her days of struggle have been hoping it’s the former. As the weeks have gone by, though, that has seemed harder and harder to believe. Next Tuesday, when she might have been in New York for the UN General Assembly, 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. Anyone in the West who tweets or writes or broadcasts about the Rohingya is liable to be bombarded by Burmese or their sympathisers with pictures of atrocities committed by Rohingya militants in recent attacks.
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 same cynical racism.
The Bamar people, from whose name the British got “Burma”, constitute two thirds of the population. The remaining third is made up of dozens of relatively small groups like the Rohingya and the Karen. Like the Karen, the Rohingya stayed loyal to the British during the Second World War, and fought the Japanese. They have migrated from Bengal, now Bangladesh, for centuries, yet they are still regarded as illegal immigrants; and in 1982 the then military dictatorship decided to bar them 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, known as The Lady or Daw (“Aunt”) Suu, has had to dirty her hands with all the compromises that power had brought her. Under Burma’s distinctly nationalistic constitution, the husbands, wives or parents of foreigners cannot become president; so because Daw Suu, who studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, married an Englishman, Dr Michael Aris, and had two sons by him, she was only allowed to be the country’s de facto leader with the title “State Counsellor”. It was in this capacity that 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 motor-scooters. 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.
My cameraman’s sheer force of will got us a place right in front of the crowd, and when she hopped up on a chair on the other side of the gate and looked over at us all, I was able to shriek out to her above the unbelievable racket that we were from the BBC. “It has been my lifeline for seven years,” The Lady called out in reply. The next day we went to interview her. She showed us around her pleasant, airy house, and gave us tea. I was sweating uncomfortably in the heat, but she remained as cool as ever. I was, inevitably, captivated: I don’t think anyone could have failed to be.
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 personally have no doubt that she understands and 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 now finds herself in. In a speech made in 1990, the year before she won the 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.
Silenced: once lauded as a defender of democracy, Suu Kyi, top, is now the subject of protests
Fleeing: Rohingya arriving on a boat to Bangladesh
Historical moment: John Simpson interviews Aung San Suu Kyi the day following her release after seven years from house arrest