When it comes to human rights, few names carry quite as much weight as Aung San Suu Kyi’s.
In more than two decades of facing down Burma’s former military junta, the opposition leader earned reverence at home and admiration across the globe — not to mention the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Her release from years of house arrest in 2010 and her election to Burma’s parliament last year helped persuade Western nations to relax sanctions on the current, civilian-led government.
So to some of Suu Kyi’s admirers in the West, and ethnic and religious minorities here in Burma, the past few months have been disconcerting.
That’s because “the lady,” as she is known, has been resisting calls to wield her moral authority on behalf of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that faces state-sponsored discrimination and has suffered attacks by extremist Buddhists in western Burma.
Suu Kyi, however, is making no apologies for sounding less like a human rights icon and more like a politician playing to the country’s Buddhist majority.
“Please don’t forget that I started out as the leader of a political party. I cannot think of anything more political than that,” Suu Kyi said at a Dec. 6 news conference in Rangoon. “Icon was a depiction that was imposed on me by other people.”
Suu Kyi’s situation is particularly sensitive as she attempts to persuade the country’s still-powerful military to change the constitution before national elections in 2015 and, among other things, remove a provision that bars her from becoming president.
At 68, Suu Kyi — the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, who was slain in 1947 — remains the country’s most popular public figure.
But critics say Suu Kyi, a member of the country’s Buddhist, Burman elite, is softening her long-standing support for human rights to appease the military and protect herself from ruling-party politicians who might play the ethnic card against her. The complaints are particularly strong among Burma’s Muslims and other ethnic minorities, such as the largely Christian Kachin population.
Suu Kyi “is after the majority vote because she wants to be president,” said Khin Maung Myint, a Rohingya activist who noted, wistfully, that he backed her when she rose to prominence in pro-democracy protests in 1988.
Suu Kyi is regularly feted in foreign capitals, but the issue has raised concern among some of her global admirers.
Hans Hogrefe, the Washington director and chief policy officer at Physicians for Human Rights, said his group wants all leaders in Burma — not just Suu Kyi — to speak out for the Rohingya.
But Hogrefe said Suu Kyi’s actions will carry undeniable weight. “If she doesn’t speak out, that also sends a signal,” he said by phone from Washington.
Many Rohingya have lived in Burma — also known as Myanmar — for generations, but their national origins remain a subject of bitter contention. The government considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Hundreds died last year in riots, which left tens of thousands of Rohingya in squalid camps.
In an October interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi rejected charges that the Rohingya situation amounts to “ethnic cleansing.” She said that both Buddhists and Muslims have fears about each other, noting that there is “a perception that global Muslim power is very great.” Although Muslims have borne the brunt of the recent violence, she equated the two groups’ suffering and said many Burmese Buddhists who fled military rule also remain stranded as refugees in various countries.
Although other Muslims in Burma also face prejudice, the Rohingya are viewed with particular scorn by many in the country.
Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, said she has little room to maneuver.
“I understand the Western countries are giving pressure about the Rohingya,” Nyan Win said. However, he said, “according to our history and our law, we can’t accept the Rohingya.” Nyan Win made the comments in the party’s small Rangoon headquarters, whose walls are plastered with posters of Suu Kyi — an illustration of how the party she helped found 25 years ago remains centered on her.
Some analysts caution that Suu Kyi faces an enormously complicated political situation in a country emerging from decades of isolation. She would undoubtedly seek to heal Burma’s political, ethnic and religious divisions as president, they say, if only she got the chance to serve.
“She has to have a balanced approach,” said Thierry Mathou, the French ambassador to Burma. “She has to do national reconciliation. When you are doing politics, it is impossible to please everybody.”
Suu Kyi’s situation is particularly difficult given that when it comes to the presidency, she literally cannot win. The military overturned her party’s victory in 1990, put her under house arrest and then wrote a new constitution in 2008 that barred people with spouses or children who are foreign nationals from becoming president. That appeared to target Suu Kyi, whose husband was British and whose children carry British passports.
In addition to repealing that provision, her party wants to reduce the 25 percent share of parliament that the constitution guarantees to the military.
Suu Kyi has been making it clear that she respects the army and sees it as a key part of the country’s future — words that many see as an effort to assure former generals that they will not be put on trial, or lose their money, in a fully democratic Burma.
But such comments are a letdown to longtime anti-government activists and members of ethnic minorities, such as Khon Ja, 43, from Kachin state, where largely Christian ethnic rebels are in an on-again, off-again battle with the army.
Khon Ja, a member of the Kachin Peace Network, has been trying to get Suu Kyi to address the problem of rapes of displaced ethnic women in Kachin state. In a recent news conference, Suu Kyi tiptoed around the issue of sexual violence in conflict zones, saying that ethnic militias also are complicit.
Khon Ja said Suu Kyi had been the “voice of people who were suffering in Myanmar.” But she and other younger Kachin have soured on Suu Kyi, she said.
“From my point of view, she is a politician who lies to me,” said Khon Ja, adding that Suu Kyi is isolated from civil society leaders, a common complaint.
Still, in Burma’s nascent democracy, no one commands respect and attention like Suu Kyi does, Khon Ja said, and the main alternative in national elections is the military-linked governing party.
“The Myanmar people have no option when we come to 2015,” she said.