If there were statues to Aung San Suu Kyi outside of Burma, they would be surrounded by angry crowds seeking to pull them down.
Her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, which critics want revoked, now seems as meaningless as that awarded to President Barak Obama.
And even Jean Chretien’s former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy (1996-2000) has chimed in suggesting that Ottawa should cancel her honorary Canadian citizenship. (Probably not high among her concerns).
Over her long years in house arrest by Burmese generals unwilling to do away with her, but unable to contain her image as an iconic representative of democracy, she built a global following akin to Mother Teresa’s.
And, having finally been released from custody with the overwhelming victory of her political party, democracy representatives around the globe expected that she would embrace the Muslim Rohingya as a persecuted minority needing her support and protection.
Instead, we have seen the other side of the coin: Suu Kyi as a Burmese nationalist, more than a little skeptical of the position of the Rohingya in Burma and dismissive of UN demands that she act on their behalf. Indeed, she (reflecting the attitudes of other Burmese) refers to them as “Bengalis,” claiming falsely that their presence in Burma is relatively recent, and they should settle in Bangladesh.
Settling in Rakhine State, in the west of Burma, the Rohingya, at approximately one million population, have been primarily farmers and fishers. As Muslims, however, in a predominately Buddhist state, their circumstances have become increasingly parlous, particularly as Burmese have become more nationalistic. In the 1982s, they were stripped of Burmese citizenship, making them the world’s largest stateless population.
Previous clashes with Burmese security forces in 2012, prior to Aung San Suu Kyi becoming state counselor (equivalent to prime minister), had already forced thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh. Even during her process of achieving national leadership, she showed more concern for humanitarian problems abroad than within Burma. And when becoming leader, her objectives were primarily improving national economics and ending various local insurgencies. Consequently, she focused on suggestions for economic development for Rohingya and not on restoring their Burmese citizenship.
Moreover, the Rohingya have violated one of the basic laws of minorities: they have taken aggressive action against the majority. On Aug. 25, Rohingya militants reportedly attacked 30 police posts and a fort in a coordinated assault, killing a number of security personnel.
The Burmese armed forces were not amused. They have implemented a disproportionate “eye for a tooth” response, burning/destroying at least 100 villages and consequently driving upwards of 400,00 Rohingya across the Bangladesh-Burma border, where they are quartered in massive tent cities in need of virtually every level of assistance.
For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken with some sympathy but refused to blame the Burmese army, suggesting the Rohingya should return. She has ignored a cacophony of calls ranging from NGOs and the United Nations to, in effect, cease and desist, and provide Rohingya with humanitarian assistance and political rights.
Regarding the Rohingya there is also more than an element of refugee fatigue. Moreover, although media such as the BBC provide endless video of displaced Rohingya, their plight, despite being labeled “ethnic cleansing,” does not appear to be at the levels of Rwanda’s genocide, or even of the endless stream of boats sinking in the Mediterranean with dying refugees.
For its part, the White House recently released a statement saying it was “deeply troubled” by the violence and, on Sept. 20, committed an additional $32 million in relief funds, bringing the U.S. total to roughly $95 million this budget year.
But facing the massive destruction from hurricanes striking Texas and Florida as well as the virtually total devastation of Puerto Rico, U.S. interest in “far away” Burmese refugees is peripheral. If we are going to help any foreigners, it will be Mexicans, struggling with a series of earthquakes that have left major population centers, including Mexico City, extensively damaged.
And Aung San Soo Kyi?
We are seeing a textbook illustration of “real politik.” While she is technically Burma’s leader as “prime minister,” the Burmese armed forces hold defining power with constitutional authority over security affairs and 25 percent of the parliamentary seats. She will not act to succor an unpopular minority at the potential cost of vital domestic support. She has relatively narrow parameters within which she can operate.
Her vision for Burma does not include Quixotic charges at windmills to which she is indifferent.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”