Unhappy the land in need of heroes
I met Aung San Suu Kyi just the once. It was in August 2012, quite soon after she was released from fifteen years of on-off house arrest. Myanmar’s military junta looked ready to loosen its grip on power, and I was there on behalf of an international organisation of human rights lawyers to investigate how the legal order might be stabilised. Serious business, but you wouldn’t know it from my souvenir photograph. I look thrilled to bits.
In my defence, other people would have been just as excited. Since receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi had been a moral superstar. In a 2006 New Statesman poll to find the greatest ‘hero of our time’, she had trounced the runner-up, Nelson Mandela. No pedestal seemed out of reach.
All that’s now changed. Her reward for winning a landslide victory in the army-managed elections of November 2015 was to be appointed as ‘state counsellor’, an invented post (it appears nowhere in the constitution) as short of power as it is heavy with bureaucratic responsibilities. Under her notional watch, the military has driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to flee the western state of Rakhine into neighbouring Bangladesh. Arbitrary detention, disappearances, torture, rape and murder have been so widespread that almost every human rights authority in the world has found Myanmar culpable of crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s voice has grown correspondingly feeble. Minimising or ignoring evidence of systematic army brutality, she portrays the violence as a finely balanced conflict between squabbling communities. She won’t even utter the word ‘Rohingya’, because the Buddhist nationalists integral to her electoral success insist that every member of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state is a ‘Bengali’ illegal immigrant. According to the BBC journalist Fergal Keane, she is also ‘irked’ that there’s been a ‘turn in western voices, from adulation to condemnation’. If that’s all, it’s a shame. Her admirers-turned-critics aren’t abandoning her for not being a saint; they’re astounded that all her personal strengths are being devoted to the excuse of gross human rights abuses.
Her first public effort as state counsellor to address the Rakhine problem was a televised address she delivered on 19 September 2017 (parts of it appear in the recent Channel 4 documentary, Myanmar’s Killing Fields). The speech contained demonstrable inaccuracies – a claim disproved by satellite imagery that ‘conflicts’ and ‘clearance operations’ had ended two weeks earlier, for example – but even more pernicious than the falsehoods was the undertone. Though she has consistently ducked calls to grant the Rohingya full citizenship, she blamed the entire refugee crisis on a mysterious reluctance on the part of some Muslims to integrate. Friendly foreign states should visit those who remained, she said, because ‘we want to find out why this exodus is happening.’
The disingenuous request for help put me in mind of my meeting with her in 2012. The conflict in Rakhine had just broken out, and it was still reasonable to hope she had imaginative ideas about social reconciliation. When I tentatively broached the sensitive subject, she surprised me with a question. I had recently written a book on Islamic legal history, she noted thoughtfully. What would sharia law suggest?
I was taken aback. Human rights norms offered better guidance, I replied. But the inquiry was striking. She was inviting advice to forestall criticism, it seemed, and since she was never likely to start triangulating between Islamic and international law for the Rohingyas' sake, I was left wondering what she believed at all. Contemplating compromise can be laudable when it offers a route through political thickets, but I got no sense of a destination. Her poise and tone didn’t signify deliberation; they masked calculation.
Freedom from Fear, a book she compiled shortly before she won the Nobel Prize, contains a laboured reworking of Lord Acton’s best-known dictum. ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear,’ she wrote. ‘Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.’ In her ambivalent role as state counsellor – draped in the adornments of office but constrained by military priorities – she is subject to both. Her once formidable determination has shrunk into fears of irrelevance, and she shies away from another confrontation with the military. Such failings are understandable – as she regularly points out, she's only human – but they are sad all the same. Though she isn’t ordering enormous crimes, she is trying (and failing) to obscure them. Hers is the more pathetic sin of pandering to power.