A politician, not an icon

Fahad Ali is troubled by the hagiography of Aung San Suu Kyi

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi arrived at the Sydney Opera House to accept honorary doctorates from University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, she received a roaring standing ovation. The Nobel Laureate is certainly a remarkable character. Her long fight for Burmese democratisation has had her at odds with governmental regimes for decades, and, between 1989 and 2010, she spent a total of fifteen years under house arrest. Despite this vision for change, she is chillingly silent on the ethnic violence in Burma that has generated alarm within human rights organisations across the world.

Suu Kyi is soft-spoken. Her words are measured, gentle, and unadorned. It is easy to see why her devotees call her Mother Suu. Her address at the Opera House concerned the necessity of amending the Burmese Constitution, a document that currently entrenches military rule and grants inordinate power to the Commander-in-Chief. She insisted this constitutional amendment is integral to Burmese democratisation and national reconciliation, but qualifies that “we do not want the military to be left out either.” Further, she drew on examples of Burmese politicians who are “swayed by popularity, by public applause” and hold transient acclaim, but fail to leave a lasting legacy. Despite all this, Suu Kyi told the audience that she does not believe in military condemnation, because she has “not found that condemnation brings good results.”

But, this position is troublesome. According to Amensty International, “[Rohingya people are] subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation; land confiscation; forced eviction and house destruction; and financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingyas continue to be used as forced labourers on roads and at military camps.” Suu Kyi was evasive when questioned and refused to speak directly on the persecution of the Rohingya people. Instead, she replied to questions with blanket statements on non-violence. In response to a question from an audience member, she said, “when you use terms like ethnic cleansing, which I think is a little extreme, it just plays into the hands of extremists.”

Suu Kyi was similarly noncommittal when asked whether it was appropriate for Australia to resettle children who seek asylum in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. She asserted that resettlement must be solved within “the framework of rule of law” but qualified that “justice has to be tempered by mercy”. The audience went into frenzied applause, but her posturing was disappointing. The “rule of law” is an inescapably vague concept and “mercy” is similarly ambiguous. It would have not been difficult for Suu Kyi to critique a system that separates children from their mothers and forcibly resettles them abroad.

The plight of the Rohingya people is ostensibly insignificant in Suu Kyi’s plan to reform and bring democracy to Burma. Though her dedication to reform Burma is authentic, Suu Kyi’s power is contingent upon her popularity with the Buddhist majority. Throughout the evening, Suu Kyi made the conscious decision to remain silent on ethnic cleansing of a minority. She understands that silence is powerful. Her silence on these contentious issues will preserve her popularity within Burma, a necessity for her to form government.

However, one must ask: is a democracy founded on indifference to minority suffering a democracy worth pursuing? “Let me assure you, I am not a saint of any kind,” she said. “I have always thought of myself as a politician, and not as an icon.” Nonetheless, she is venerated as an international icon for justice and humanity. Suu Kyi embodies a light of hope for millions living in Burma. But not only does she fail to speak up for the Rohingya people, for whom light is fast dwindling, she selectively downplays their persecution with equivocal and dismissive statements. Should Suu Kyi wish to maintain her acclaim, she will need to reconsider her public stance, or she may find her legacy, as saint and as politician, irreparably tarnished.

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