Burma is essentially run by one of the world’s most lauded humanitarians — a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a democracy icon. Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the party in charge of the government, suffered more than two decades of repression, including a long house arrest, rather than leave the country or abandon her quest for elections.
Yet since her party took power last year, Suu Kyi — the country’s de facto leader, though not its official president — has stood by and watched the slaughter and flight of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya, a Muslim minority more than a million strong. In 2016, Burma’s military was engaged in a campaign of brutal suppression in Rakhine state, in the west of the country. Then, scattered attacks by Rohingya militant groups on police posts prompted an even harsher counterattack from the generals, reportedly joined by vigilante groups and other state security forces. That cycle intensified further this summer.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other monitors have cited expulsions of Rohingya from towns, campaigns to burn whole villages and killings by the armed forces in Burma (which is also called Myanmar) . In recent weeks alone, some 370,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh, according to United Nations estimates. The U.N. rights chief calls the campaign in Rakhine a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” NPR noted that “reports of unbridled murder and arson, rape and persecution have followed [Rohingya] out of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, sketching a stark portrait of government violence.”
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party was also repressed and brutalized by the armed forces during the long era of military rule, refuses to look squarely at the crisis. She has yet to visit the center of the violence, and in her public comments, she has refrained from criticizing the armed forces. This month, she claimed that there was an “iceberg of misinformation” circulating about the situation in Rakhine . Her office has mocked supposed “fake news” about the plight of the Rohingya. And her spokesman told local news outlet Frontier Myanmar that Rohingya “are holding weapons — swords, daggers, catapults and home-made rifles” — and then seemed to give non-Rohingya carte blanche to shoot Rohingya if they perceived danger from them.
Why did somebody who achieved so much good become complicit in so much ugliness? There are several possible, interlocking reasons.
First, Suu Kyi’s current silence is consistent with her approach to the Rohingya for years: She has never demonstrated much sympathy. On the campaign trail before the November 2015 election, she strove to avoid discussing violence in Rakhine , even though an earlier wave had destroyed Rohingya communities and no militant group had yet emerged there. When she did speak about the Rohingya, she called reporters into a news conference shortly before the vote and told them not to “exaggerate” the difficulties that the Rohingya faced.
It’s possible that this disinterest reflects Suu Kyi’s personal views, but it’s impossible to know for sure. One of her best-known biographers, Peter Popham, has written that Suu Kyi is not, at her core, a bigot: She has had senior advisers who are Muslims (although not Rohingya). And “one of the key figures in persuading her to dive into the democracy movement” was a best-selling dissident Muslim author, Maung Thaw Ka, Popham notes.
But Suu Kyi does represent her party. And there was little concern among the NLD rank and file in 2015, or even now in 2017, about violence against the Rohingya. Many NLD members, like a significant share of the Buddhist majority, simply think that the Rohingya are outsiders — called “Bengalis” by many Burmese — who do not deserve to live in the country, even though some have been there for generations. Last year, Suu Kyi reportedly asked the U.S. ambassador in Burma not to refer to the group as Rohingya, a sign that she sees them this way, too.
That means there is no political benefit to challenging majority views toward the Rohingya. The NLD did not put up any Muslim candidates during the 2015 national elections. Other former pro-democracy leaders, who also were harshly repressed by the military during the decades of junta rule, have expressed far stronger anti-Rohingya sentiments than Suu Kyi ever has.
These sentiments coincide with a growing Buddhist nationalist movement. As a recent International Crisis Group investigation revealed, this political and social movement is building extensive services at the community level. Buddhist nationalist groups offer what the ICG calls “a sense of belonging” for many young Buddhists. Such groups are the type of grass-roots organizations that no politician likes to alienate. Suu Kyi does not depend on the movement’s support — many hard-line Buddhist nationalists view her as soft on the Rohingya — but she also probably does not want a major rift with it.
Since taking control of the government — at least, the ministries not controlled by the military — Suu Kyi has made clear that she has two major priorities: trying to improve Burma’s economy and, most important to the government, making peace with the ethnic armies that have waged long insurgencies in northern and northeastern parts of the country.
Suu Kyi has launched an ambitious peace process with a number of insurgent groups, clearly seeing it as essential to her legacy and to making the country whole. Her father, the independence leader Aung San, tried to lay the groundwork for a federal Burma and prevent this civil conflict, but he was assassinated not long after he came to an initial agreement with ethnic minority groups. So all other issues are second to the economy and the peace process, as a government spokesman told the New York Times, playing down the relative importance of “democracy and human rights, including press freedom.”
Suu Kyi may also believe that her ability to stop the brutal military campaign in Rakhine state is limited. Although she is the de facto head of government, the top general, Min Aung Hlaing, maintains a great degree of power. Burma’s constitution gives the armed forces control over the military budget and over ministries related to security issues; they are also allotted 25 percent of seats in parliament. Perhaps the army will have less power at some point in the future, after a period of civilian rule and a change in the constitution to reduce its role in politics. But until then, Suu Kyi may judge it impractical to waste political capital challenging the military on an issue many people in her party do not care about.
Another problem is that foreign pressure on her to stop the Rohingya crisis seems to have made her even more intransigent. Suu Kyi has always been known as stubborn. (How else does one survive decades under house arrest and other repression?) She also is known to keep her own counsel. She does not have many voices in her inner circle pushing back or offering critiques of her actions — voices that could argue for a change in her Rakhine policy. She has a small staff and reportedly gets little input from NLD members of parliament. Fergal Keane, a longtime chronicler of Suu Kyi for the BBC, noted that “last December, when Vijay Nambiar, the UN Special Representative to Myanmar, urged Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state, he was rebuffed.” Why? Because, as one Suu Kyi adviser told Keane, she simply did not want to be seen as following outside orders. This stubbornness could be multiplied by a feeling of betrayal: The very countries, rights organizations and international leaders who for decades supported Suu Kyi are now inveighing against her.
Suu Kyi has not been totally inactive on the Rakhine crisis. She created a commission of experts, chaired by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, to investigate the violence. This was an important step, and her government has rhetorically committed to implementing the panel’s recommendations.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi may see that, despite criticism of how she has handled the Rakhine crisis, most powerful foreign governments are not going to punish Burma. The White House put out a statement this past week noting that it was “deeply troubled” by the violence in Rakhine but has done little else. Elsewhere, Delhi has stood alongside Suu Kyi in condemning Rohingya terrorist groups and has threatened to deport Rohingya seeking shelter in India. Beijing blames the Rohingya militants for the violence. This month, Suu Kyi’s security adviser noted that “friendly countries” such as China would block any resolution at the U.N. Security Council criticizing Burma.
Given her moral stature, her history and her power in Burma, Suu Kyi’s inaction has surely worsened affairs. She has shown the military that it can act with impunity, and her public statements have done nothing to challenge people within her party who don’t see the issue as important. Her indifference has hurt aid organizations’ ability to get people on the ground and to potentially raise money to help the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi can still make a difference, though. By speaking out more about the plight of the Rohingya, she could boost international aid efforts to keep Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh — and temporary places of shelter inside Burma — from dying. And in the end, she is the popularly elected leader in Burma; while Buddhist nationalist groups and generals might dislike a visit by her to Rakhine , they would be unlikely to stop her.
She knows these things. But she has watched the humanitarian crisis unfold anyway.