Once hailed as one of the world’s most revered human rights defenders, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s stunning fall from grace has left heads spinning around the globe. The freedom fighter-turned-politician has watched impassively as a genocide unfolds before her eyes, and she continues to ignore international pleas for action.
Suu Kyi spent decades fighting against Burmese military rule, including nearly 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner in Yangon. Her remarkable rise to become Myanmar’s de facto leader in 2016 brought hope to a nation long plagued by oppression.
But just two years into her tenure, the democracy darling’s blatant disregard for an ongoing campaign of state-sponsored abuse that has driven 700,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country has left many of her countless admirers bewildered and outraged.
Suu Kyi has dismissed reports of atrocities committed against the minority Rohingya population ― including documented killings, rapes, shootings, arson and torture ― as “misinformation.” Her inaction and repeated refusals to grant access to humanitarian parties and investigators have even spurred calls to revoke her Nobel Prize, which she claimed in 1991 for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
The disgraced leader’s departure from the values she long championed has drawn mounting rebuke, and begs the question: Why?
By neglecting to take action or even speak out, Suu Kyi is not just apathetic ― she is complicit in the Rohingya crisis, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“She could have pushed to allow journalists and international aid groups to work freely in Rakhine State. She could have publicly called for an investigation into military leaders in Rakhine State who are [accused] of violence,” he said. “But she may feel that because many people in Myanmar don’t care about the Rohingya, that it’s not good policy.”
Although she’s been scorned on the world stage, Suu Kyi remains popular in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where Rohingya have endured decades of discrimination and little sympathy is evident for their suffering, especially from state-controlled media. Her party, the National League for Democracy, has also shown little concern for the violence against Rohingya in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
“It’s possible that she really doesn’t care about the Rohingya,” said Kurlantzick, who noted that Suu Kyi’s silence on the crimes long predates her time in office. “She may think it’s not worth taking a stand because her other priorities are more important to her.”
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.”
Some observers speculate that after a lifetime of tirelessly pursuing Burmese democracy and prosperity ― causes her father lived and died fighting for ― 72-year-old Suu Kyi’s desire to remain in power has eroded her commitment to protecting human rights.
South African anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureate, warned his “dear sister” of the perils of power last September, weeks after a provocation by Rohingya insurgents unleashed an explosive retaliation by Myanmar security forces.
“Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted ― and recently accelerated,” he wrote.
“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.”
According to Suu Kyi herself, maintaining authority can be a dangerous pursuit.
“It is not power that corrupts but fear,” she once said. “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.”
Suu Kyi’s election was a watershed moment for her country, but she did not secure the presidency: As a mother to foreign-born children, she was constitutionally barred from assuming that office. Instead, after her party’s landslide victory, she named herself state counselor ― a specially created position intended to be “above the president.”
But even at the head of Myanmar’s government, Suu Kyi’s authority remains restricted by the military-drafted Constitution. As such, the military still controls Myanmar’s police and security forces, as well as key cabinet positions.
Experts on authoritarian governance, including American Enterprise Institute fellow Clay Fuller, contend that Suu Kyi’s extremely limited power over the military extends to the military-driven massacre of the Rohingya.
“I don’t believe she’ll publicly come out for the Rohingya. I think, privately, inside, she thinks this is abhorrent ... but the internal politics of Myanmar prevent her from doing that, largely because the military is still in control,” Fuller said. “Holding an election doesn’t make [Myanmar] a democracy.”
He believes that in Suu Kyi’s mind, it is risky to publicly denounce the military’s campaign of targeted abuse because they “have their fingers on all the levers to remove her.”
“I think she is calculating that she shouldn’t say anything because she can do better good if she stays where she is. But if the pressure from the international community mounts on her enough to actually convince her to come out and take a stand against the government, she could go back into house arrest, and Myanmar could go back down the route of extreme military control,” Fuller said.
He has been disturbed to see Suu Kyi excoriated by public condemnation while Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces, remains relatively unscathed.
“Why are we wasting all our time attacking her? The military of Myanmar is the enemy. They are the government, they are the dictators, they are the ones committing genocide,” said Fuller. “They’re murdering children and we’re sitting here trying to revoke a Nobel Peace Prize. It just seems like a waste of time.”
In a searing editorial titled “As Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer, I have to say that the only good thing she can do now is resign,” Irish author Peter Popham wrote that instead of challenging the military, Suu Kyi “is now its poodle, its patsy, its flak-catcher in chief,” while Min Aung Hlaing “is off the hook.”
“Today she finds herself the most powerful civilian in the government, but with no right to stand up to, let alone overrule, the government on crucial issues such as Rakhine.”