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

The Daily Telegraph - - News Review & Features -

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

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