SHE was the darling of the chattering classes in the West, the self-styled “lioness of democracy”, taking on one of the world’s last remnants of a Stalinist military regime in Myanmar.
Assuming a near mythic persona and aura, her credibility was boosted by her marriage to an English-born Oxford don.
But is Myanmar’s state counsellor, the de facto political ruler Aung San Suu Kyi, despite being barred from being president under the country’s compromised constitution, becoming a victim of her own mythology?
Her transformation from being a “champion of democracy” to “The Lady” (her sobriquet by her acolytes), who has created a powerful role for herself to fulfil a promise of being “above the president”, exuding an air of superiority and unleashing a cult of personality as if she had a divine right to be “above” public scrutiny, is as breathtaking as it is soul-destroying for her erstwhile admirers in the West.
Already a septuagenarian like Donald Trump, Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on Myanmar army’s systematic campaign of brutality against the 1.3 million Rohingya Muslim minority could turn out to be her political nemesis and “a crisis of her credibility”.
To date, according to the United Nations, some 80,000 of them have sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh and elsewhere over the last two weeks.
Suu Kyi’s “democratic” credentials, for the first time, are coming under intense scrutiny. Since coming to “power” following elections in 2015 won by her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), she has conspicuously refused to discuss the plight of the Rohingya, which saw thousands of them displaced, women raped and others murdered — actions investigated and largely confirmed by the UN and its agencies, human rights organisations, non-governmental organisations and the international media.
It’s ironic that Suu Kyi, for so long romancing the international media in her campaign against human rights abuses and suppression of the press under a pariah military regime, should now deny those very journalists the right to investigate and question her about her government’s stance on the treatment of the Rohingya, the military crackdown on them, and denial of citizenship to them on grounds that the issue is exaggerated, fed by “an iceberg of disinformation”, and that the army is merely responding to attacks on police and soldiers by “terrorists”.
The reality is that one “Lady’s” terrorists are another one’s insurgents, fighting against the excesses of a military machine bent on ethnically cleansing Myanmar of its Muslim minority and history. Today, it is the turn of the Muslims. Tomorrow, it might be Myanmar’s Christian minority, including Catholics.
In today’s world of super social media with its propensity for fake and alternative news, disinformation is not the preserve of one group. Any group, whether a majority or minority, have the inalienable right to self-defence if they are persecuted or their lives threatened.
Suu Kyi’s apparent amoral politicking has brought her the opprobrium of an alliance of the brave led by Pope Francis, who, in an address a few days ago, alluded to the Rohingya who have “been suffering and tortured for years, killed simply because they want to live their culture and their Muslim faith. Let us pray for them. They are not Christians, but they are our brothers and sisters”.
Others who have bravely spoken out in support of the Rohingya include UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. This has precipitated an unprecedented online petition to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to strip Suu Kyi’s laureate.
Pope Francis has a point. I have a sense of deja vu. As a young journalist, I wrote several articles on the Rohingya in 1981, who were then subject to unspeakable atrocities by the Burmese army.
The Rohingya, alas, are the most “friendless” and some of the most “marginalised” minorities on earth.
Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak up against the action of the army is revealing. It is not steeped in the notion that even if she did, there is nothing she could do to stop them. After all, Myanmar remains a pseudo-military state, where despite the fact that the NLD is ruling, the ultimate power and “guardians of democracy” remain with the generals.
This is poppycock. Appeasement never got Neville Chamberlain anywhere. Nor will it Suu Kyi.
Her family history may explain her behaviour. She is “like father like daughter”.
Her father, Aung San, was a staunch Burmese nationalist who led the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) against Japanese occupation and fought with the British to liberate Burma in 1945.
He led the interim government a year before independence in 1948, but was murdered by nationalist rivals led by U Saw. Already the signs of a merger between nationalism and Buddhism, the majority religion of Burma, were there.
Fast forward to the last decade and the rise of the Saffron Revolution — an arc of militant violent Buddhist nationalism spreading from India to Myanmar, to Thailand and Sri Lanka — Islamophobic and Christianophobic to their sinews, of which the two most vitriolic are the 969 movement led by the “monk” Ashin Wirathu, “the Burmese Bin Laden”; and the Bodu Balan Sena, the champion of Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism.
Just look at how Burmese politicians, intellectuals and academia are trying to deny the very existence of Rohingya and, for that matter, any trace of Islam in the country’s history.
One study published independently by a visiting Burmese academic at Columbia University in 2007 referred to Rohingya as “viruses”.
Suu Kyi seems to have a phobia about Islam. When BBC Today programme presenter Mishal Hussain went to interview her, and she found out that she was Muslim, she refused to continue with the interview. Suu Kyi, according to BBC Myanmar correspondent Jonah Foster, shares a strong dislike of journalists with President Trump.
The similarity of both, condemning selective media reports as fake news and their faux pas of erroneous usage of examples to discredit their opponents, are bizarre.
But, her true disdain for the media could not be more revealing when last week, a BBC team got permission to visit Rakhine state. But on arrival, it was withdrawn after word reached Suu Kyi’s government in the capital Naypyidaw, and the order was given to stop the BBC team and return them to the capital.
Such are the credentials of Nobel laureates in the 21st Century!
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer.