Last night I watched The Lady, a film documenting the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi from Oxford housewife to Burmese freedom fighter. It’s difficult not to be touched by the passion, bravery and sacrifice she shows for the Burmese people, who suffered not only the indignity of over a century of British colonial rule, but also decades of brutal military dictatorship, which continues to this day. The actions of Suu Kyi have resulted in millions of Burmese looking to the future with hope, rather than trepidation. However, her silence in recent years in relation to the Rohingya situation in the country’s north has left me perplexed.
In her youth, Suu Kyi left Burma to study in the UK, and while at college met her husband, Michael Aris. They settled in Oxford and lived a comfortable life, but everything changed in 1988 when Suu Kyi visited her dying mother in Burma and discovered her political calling. This period saw the first tentative steps forward for The National League for Democracy, with Suu Kyi flexing her leadership muscles, while molding her philosophy of non-violent political change. Many influential meetings ironically took place in the family home, the very place where her father dreamed of a free Burma half a century before.
Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, played a pivotal role in securing independence from the British, but his assassination just six months before the historic handover meant the father of modern Burma never tasted the sweetness of political autonomy. Suu Kyi followed in her father's footsteps and attempted to instill dignity and belief into a wounded people, stoking the fire of hope within the nation's heart.
In the eyes of the Burmese people, Suu Kyi overflows with goodness, and her persona, which is gentle but firm, is a potent catalyst for change. She represents a flame of hope burning brightly in the face of governmental cronyism and ineptitude. This manifested itself in her landslide victory in the 1990 election, the first democratic election since 1960. However, her win was anathema to the military elite who laughed in the face of the country's collective will and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for the next fifteen years. At the same time, influential members of the National League of Democracy languished indefinitely in Burma’s jails. Their only crime was instigating change in a land where misrule had robbed generations of a future.
There is little doubt that The Lady, as Suu Kyi is affectionately known in Burma, acted with drive and forethought, attempting to fulfill her father's destiny and propel Burma forward towards a better future; however, in the wake of her dominance of Burmese politics, her failure to speak out about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in the countries north east has tarnished the image of the Nobel peace laureate.
In recent years, Rakhine state in Northern Burma has been rocked by ethnic violence between Buddhists and Muslims. The severity of the situation, combined with the fact that many Muslim monks are hiking up tension with incendiary comments, led me to consider a number of questions:
Why is this upholder of the good, this embodiment of compassion not saying more?
Suu Kyi's silence strikes a chord of unease in the heart of human rights activists, many of whom are beginning to question her motives.
Is she being politically expedient?
Perhaps Suu Kyi is widely tipped to win the 2015 election and become the leader of the country; thus, a show of support for the Rohingya could infuriate Buddhist voters, who in turn might punish her at the ballot box.
In June, 2013, Suu Kyi broke her public silence on the Rohingya issue when she condemned the government’s two-child policy, which puts a cap on the number of Rohingya offspring per family. The junta state overpopulation as justification for the policy; however, it’s a Muslim only policy and doesn’t apply to the country’s 90% Buddhist majority.
Who knows what the future holds for Burma, The Lady, or the embattled Rohingya minority. Memories of what happened in Ruanda are still vivid in the minds of international observers, and to prevent the unspeakable happening, Suu Kyi might have to speak out more often to prevent a catastrophe.