In a continuation of months of violence, reports indicate that at least 100 have been killed and 18,500 have fled to Bangladesh after clashes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. According the Human Rights Watch, satellite images show widespread burning and destruction. The most recent clashes began on Friday when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked dozens of police posts, checkpoints, and a military base in Rakhine State. The events of Tuesday appear to be the military’s retaliation to these attacks, and they are the latest manifestation of violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, is a country of about 50 million in Southeast Asia. It has had a long and troubled relationship with its Rohingya minority. The Rohingya, who live primarily in a coastal area near the border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, have long suffered persecution at the hands of the region’s dominant Buddhists. The government refuses to grant them citizenship, leaving them stateless, and they have suffered violent attacks. In 2012, riots killed around 170 civilians and tens of thousands were displaced. In 2015, at least 100,000 Rohingya migrated from Myanmar en masse. In October of last year, clashes with the government resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya civilians. Human rights organizations have called the atrocities “crimes against humanity,” and some have accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing.
The violence has received little attention from Myanmar’s government, which began a transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 2011. In 2016, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide electoral victory in the country’s first truly fee election, tilting the balance of power in the country away from the military. As a champion of democracy, many in the international community expected Suu Kyi to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya. Instead, she has done little to address the issue and denied UN investigators entrance to the region, eliciting global condemnation. Headlines like “Aung San Suu Kyi: The Failure,” “Aung San Suu Kyi: Still a Noble Democracy Champion?” and “Aung San Suu Kyi: From human rights heroine to alienated icon,” fill the internet.
The reason that the international community had such high expectations for Suu Kyi is rooted in Myanmar’s modern history, as is the reason she has failed to meet those expectations. In 1962, a general named Ne Win overthrew the Burmese government and established a military dictatorship. His economic policies, which he called the “Burmese Way to Socialism” and which advocated Burmese self-sufficiency, isolated the country from the global economy and forced millions into poverty. Myanmar became one of the world’s poorest and most repressive countries. Ne Win’s dictatorship was overthrown after disastrous monetary policies rendered the currency worthless in 1988, but it was replaced by yet another military junta.
The new government was called the “State Law and Order Restoration Council,” and it continued the repressive policies of its predecessor. It was during this time period that Aung San Suu Kyi became active in Myanmar as an advocate for democracy and non-violence. She founded the NLD in 1988, and she led her party to victory in a 1990 general election. The military junta, however, refused to acknowledge the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. As a result of her sacrifices in opposition to the abusive military junta, she was effectively canonized by the global human rights establishment, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest in 2010 as the military junta made preparations to transition to a democratic system of government. It drafted a “roadmap to democracy” that included a new constitution. That constitution, however, was careful to ensure that the military remained a powerful political force. It reserved twenty five percent of the seats in the legislature for military officials, and it also required that many powerful ministries of the executive branch be controlled by the military as well. Nevertheless, the NLD was allowed to win the 2016 election, and Aung San Suu Kyi became the de-facto leader of the country. Much of the international community responded with jubilation and hopefulness, expecting Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human rights crusader to translate into positive change in the country. Now, her former champions are condemning her as she fails to address the violence against the Rohingya.
The root of the international community’s harsh condemnation of Suu Kyi is largely the result of two characteristics described above: her canonization as a darling of the international human rights community and the power that the military retains over the state. The continuing influence of the military is a significant threat to Suu Kyi’s power, and she is incentivized to remain on the military’s good side by refusing to speak out against the atrocities. It is widely recognized that politicians must change their ways and compromise their principles once they begin to work within the constraints of the political system, and Myanmar’s political system is still deeply flawed as a result of years of dictatorship and the continuing influence of the military. Electing a party with “democracy” in the name is not enough to fix those flaws. Add this to the fact that conflicts as complex as the Rohingya crisis take years to resolve, and it becomes clear that Suu Kyi was doomed to fall short of international expectations from the start.
Furthermore, once Suu Kyi came to be seen an icon, she was no longer seen for what she is: a human and a politician. While there is no denying that she did amazing work, much of her image can be seen as a projection of the international community’s hopes. And reality is rarely as pretty as a projection. Now, of course, her image is transforming into the international community’s projection of disappointment, failure, and betrayal. Both, however, are projections, meaning neither is a fair representation of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her successes did not make her a saint, and her failures do not make her a villain.
None of the arguments above are meant to defend Suu Kyi or absolve her from criticism. Her inaction has rightly been criticized as contradictory to the values she long fought for. That said, both her canonization and demonization by the international community show a tendency to sacrifice intellectual rigor for oversimplified archetypes. The hero and the villain are two very compelling narratives, but there is almost always more to the story.