A Much-Changed Icon, Aung San Suu Kyi Evades Rohingya Accusations

A stark satellite analysis by Human Rights Watch shows that at least 210 of their villages have been burned to the ground since the offensive began on Aug. 25. Bangladeshi officials say that land mines had been planted on Myanmar’s side of the border, where the Rohingya are fleeing.

But Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, asking why the world did not acknowledge the progress made in her country, boasted that Muslims living in the violence-torn area had ample access to health care and radio broadcasts.

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Supporters of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, on Tuesday.

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Lynn Bo Bo/European Pressphoto Agency

It was a remarkable parroting of the language of the generals who locked her up for the better part of two decades, and in the process made a political legend of her: the regal prisoner of conscience who vanquished the military with no weapons but her principles.

Officials in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have accused the Rohingya, who have suffered decades of persecution and have been mostly stripped of their citizenship, of faking rape and torching their own houses in a bid to hijack international public opinion. She has done nothing to correct the record.

A Facebook page associated with her office suggested that international aid groups were colluding with Rohingya militants, whose attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base precipitated the fierce military counteroffensive. In a statement, her government labeled the insurgent strikes “brutal acts of terrorism.”

It has been a stunning reversal for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 72, who was once celebrated among the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to her for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

During her address, made from a vast convention center in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi tried to evoke a program of grand goals including democratic transition, peace, stability and development.

But she also cautioned that the country’s long experience with authoritarian rule, as well as seven decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s frontier lands, have frayed national unity.

“People expect us to overcome all these challenges in as short a time as possible,” she said, noting that her civilian government only took office last year. “Eighteen months is a very short time in which to expect us to meet and overcome all the challenges that we are facing.”

But there were worrisome signs from the moment she entered a power-sharing agreement with the military after her National League for Democracy won 2015 elections.

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Myanmar police officers at the Bangladesh border near Maungdaw Township in Rakhine State this month.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Myanmar’s generals — who ruled the country for nearly half a century and turned a resource-rich land also known as Burma into an economic failure — stage-managed every facet of the political transition. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, made sure to keep the most important levers of power for itself.

It also effectively relegated Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to the post of state counselor by designing a Constitution that kept her from the presidency.

“It’s always a dance with the generals,” said U Win Htein, an N.L.D. party elder. “She needs to be very quick on her feet.”

Mr. Win Htein, a former military officer who served alongside some of the Tatmadaw’s highest-ranking generals, warned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had to placate an army with a history of pushing aside civilian leaders under the pretext of defending national sovereignty.

“The army, they are watching her every word,” he said. “One misstep on the Muslim issue, and they can make their move.”

Yet even before the compromises that accompanied her ascension to power, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was already distancing herself from the hopes invested in her by the international community.

“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said in an interview shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010.

Such a recasting of her role has disappointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In an open letter, Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop, advised his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

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Rohingya refugees resting after crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar in last month.

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Adam Dean for The New York Times

Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was even more pointed.

“She should not have received a Nobel Peace Prize if she says, sorry, I’m a politician, and the norms of democracy don’t suit me,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “The whole world stood by her for decades, but today she has become the mirror image of Aung San Suu Kyi by destroying human rights and denying citizenship to the Rohingya.”

“All we can do,” he said, “is pray for the return of the old Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Beyond her personal legacy, the direction of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership carries global consequence.

“People are invested in her because we need her to succeed. This is a democratic moment, and she represents Burma’s democratic promise,” said Derek Mitchell, the former American ambassador to Myanmar. “The country sits at the crossroads of Asia in a region where democracy is in retreat, which makes Burma’s success even more important.”

In Tuesday’s speech, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledged the state of democracy in her country.

“We are a young and fragile democracy facing many problems,” she said, “but we have to cope with them all at the same time.”

Then, when she spoke about the need to study how peace flourishes in certain areas and not others, she seemed to borrow vocabulary from a self-help manual.

“We have to remove the negative and increase the positive,” she said.

As the daughter of the assassinated independence hero Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese Army, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been unapologetic about her fondness for the military, even as it has driven out the Rohingya and stepped up military offensives against other ethnic armed groups who are concentrated in Myanmar’s frontier lands.

The N.L.D.’s founding members include a former general who once served as Myanmar’s defense minister.

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Fires in Myanmar as seen from the Bangladesh side of the border this month. The Myanmar military has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village burning.

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Bernat Armangue/Associated Press

“We do not have any trust in Aung San Suu Kyi because she was born into the military,” said Hkapra Hkun Awng, a leader of the Kachin ethnicity from northern Myanmar, one of more than a dozen minorities whose rebel armies have fought the Tatmadaw over the decades. “She is more loyal to her own people than to the ethnics. Her blood is thicker than a promise of national reconciliation.”

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi belongs to the country’s Bamar ethnic majority.

Even before the mudslinging of the 2015 election campaign, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was sidestepping questions about the sectarian violence in far western Rakhine State that was disproportionately affected the Rohingya. Rather than condemning pogroms against the persecuted Muslim minority, she has dismissed accusations of ethnic cleansing and called, instead, for rule of law to solve any problem.

Because most Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship by the military, it has not been clear how any laws might apply to them. Indeed, even though Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday that Myanmar was prepared to repatriate refugees who can establish that they are residents of Myanmar, that may be a formidable task for people who are unlikely to have documents proving they lived in Myanmar before fleeing across the border.

“I can confirm now that we are ready to start the verification process at any time, and those who have been verified as refugees from this country will be accepted without any problems and with full assurances of their security and their access to humanitarian aid,” she said.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has largely shielded herself from the media and has holed up in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s bunkered capital, which was unveiled more than a decade ago by a junta paranoid that the former capital, Yangon, might be vulnerable to foreign invasion.

“Naypyidaw is an incredibly isolated and isolating environment, about as far from the currents of world opinion, or at least Western liberal opinion as one could imagine,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian who has advised the government.

Earlier this month, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi chose not to attend the United Nations General Assembly, where her stance on the Rohingya would surely have met with criticism. Just a year ago, she attended the annual assembly and was feted by the international community.

Still, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is attuned enough to public sentiment to understand the deep reservoir of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. Even though a Muslim bloc had been a loyal patron of the N.L.D. for decades, the party did not choose to stand a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 polls.

If anything, her equivocations on the Rohingya has given currency to the widely held assumption in Myanmar that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who have occupied land that rightfully belongs to the Burmese.

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