As the extent of the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people becomes clear, many people have harshly criticised the response of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Facebook, one of my friends even expressed shame at having campaigned for her.
I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. I picketed the Myanmar Embassy on a few occasions (see my photos here) and even addressed a rally for Burmese dissidents in Trafalgar Square (from whence the banner image at the top of this blog). I also collaborated with the Burma Campaign on #64forSuu, a campaign to celebrate her 64th birthday, while she was still under house arrest. On her release in 2012, I was invited to attend an event with her and other dissidents (including Zarganar) at the Royal Festival Hall.
I regret none of this.
Aung San Suu Kyi was and remains an emblem of resistance against the junta that oppressed the Burmese people for decades. Her house arrest was a synecdoche for the human rights abuses perpetuated by that regime. She was a writer and an activist who was denied liberty purely on the basis of her peaceful activism. It would have been right to campaign for her release, even if she had worn hostile attitudes to the Rohingya people on her sleeve.
It is a desperate shame that Aung San Suu Kyi has not shown moral leadership on this issue. It certainly sullies her reputation as a human rights defender.
It is not clear whether she is truly indifferent to the plight to the Rohingya Muslims. It is certainly a possibility, although I would be astonished if someone so immersed in history and human rights issues thought that way. Perhaps the power of her position has gone to her head?
I suspect that Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence to condemn the treatment of the Rohingya is due to a misplaced pragmatism. She believes that she needs to keep on good terms with the still powerful military and the increasingly influential Buddhist leaders. She may reason that the people who voted for her do not wish to see her show support for the Rohingya. And she reasons she can do more good as an elected politician, than as an outsider or (worse) back under house arrest.
If that is the case, I think she has miscalculated. She may retain domestic favour, but she is squandering her international influence. It’s not too late for her to change her mind and speak out.