Let’s not forget Myanmar’s ‘Iron Lady’ is just flesh and blood

opinion September 13, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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Can Aung San Suu Kyi ever be herself for once? Ever since she was born, she has lived under the shadow of “dictators”.

At first it was her father’s national status as independence hero. Then it was her own status as democracy hero, which threatened her marriage, shattered her family and brought years of house arrest. Then came the huge weight of expectation conferred by the Nobel Peace Prize.

You may argue that she brought some of this on herself, for example by choosing house arrest over exile. The truth, though, is that she is just a woman, placed by history in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t corner. She may not be perfect – none of us is – but people who are now calling her a disgrace have never spent years of their lives confined to their homes, unable to venture even into the street and having little more than books to kill time.

The Rohingya crisis in her country is a highly controversial and highly complicated issue. We can’t expect one person, let alone someone who was once persecuted herself and whose political position is now uniquely precarious, to wave a magic wand and bring a fairy-tale ending. Sacrifices, understanding and cooperation are needed from everyone in Myanmar, including the ethnic minorities and the stateless Rohingya themselves.

But the writing was on the wall from day one. Many observers realised, when she was freed from her home and allowed to play a semblance of “normal” politics, that the Rohingya issue was going to be her downfall. Why? Because the majority in Myanmar has a very different view of the issue than the one held by the who’s who of world politics.

To put it another way, while the Myanmar people and world leaders called in unison for Suu Kyi to be released, the former expected her to take one course of action on the Rohingya thereafter, but the latter demanded another.

Intensifying persecution of the stateless minority group in western Rakhine state has made things worse. International observers say her response to the crackdown shows she is toeing the much-maligned military’s line, and calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked are growing, backed by a petition that has already gathered signatures in the hundreds of thousands. Her many critics say she should have at least condemned the alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya people. 

This leaves her in a very tight spot. 

As the elected representative of her people, who should Suu Kyi listen to? According to the critics, she is not listening to the people of Myanmar, but kowtowing to the military, even repeating its propaganda that reports of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing are “fake” news.

So, the mainstream international media are doing their “duty” in reporting the persecution, condemning it and accusing her of lacking a moral conscience. 

Suu Kyi could be forgiven here for asking for consistency from the global media, whose spotlight seems to be shining with some intensity on Rakhine while horrible crimes against humanity go all-but ignored elsewhere.

Meanwhile the award she received from the Nobel committee was in fact more a snub to the Burmese military junta than recognition for her struggle. Snub and recognition might look like the same thing here, but look close enough and you see they are not. Yet whatever its significance, the award carries a clear message of what she should do regarding the Rohingya. The laurels have weighed heavily on her ever since the day they were conferred.

Politics has often played a role in the Nobel committee’s deliberations. The awards given to Mikhail Gorbachev, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Barack Obama and the institution of the European Union have all been the subject of controversy.

But place Suu Kyi among those names and a glaring anomaly jumps out. She has the weakest bargaining power of the lot. Obama and Carter, for example, were presidents of the world superpower and purportedly strongest democracy. Gorbachev was leading one of the globe’s most powerful nations and his clout was never in question until the very end. Suu Kyi meanwhile has only recently surfaced from years of house arrest, in a quasi-democracy where the military has retained much of its decades-long grip on power, and now faces an issue on which most citizens take a stance that is starkly at odds with international opinion.

Those facts have mattered little. The outside world has made up its mind. Where once she inspired hope, she now attracts revulsion. “The Lady” has been mocked, criticised and pilloried, by the same people who previously insisted that the voices of citizens in Myanmar should be heard. This is just the latest of the dictators that have loomed over her life since she was born.

“Give me some space”, she told then-US secretary of state John Kerry last year, regarding the Rohingya. It was a polite version of “Give me a break”. To the world, though, those pleas and the ones that followed are lost in the deafening backdrop of real cries of suffering. Much of the international criticism is justified, but much of it is also shallow and uncomprehending of her precarious position.