World still lamenting that Aung San Suu Kyi is not a superhero, still missing the point that Nobel Prizes do not saints make

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

While the plight of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar is nothing new (and was in fact what originally drew my attention to Myanmar), international outrage has grown to a fever pitch in recent weeks - particularly in light of the boat full of them that was passed back and forth between Malaysia and Thailand last week and the mass graves found yesterday. Violence between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has been simmering for over a year at this point and has gotten so bad that the Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar (which views them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants) en masse (hence the boat).

Throughout all this have been calls for Aung San Suu Kyi - opposition leader, Nobel laureate, democratic champion, iron orchid, and "Lady" - to use her magical human rights powers to make it stop: call out the government for inaction, stop the violence, call for peace, et cetera. Her persistent silence is becoming increasingly frustrating to commentators, the latest of which took figurative pen to paper in Al Jazeera to shame her for shirking her human rights obligations:
So, where does Suu Kyi fit into all this? Well, for a start, her silence is inexcusable. Her refusal to condemn, or even fully acknowledge, the state-sponsored repression of her fellow countrymen and women, not to mention the violence meted out to them by Buddhist extremists inspired by the monk Ashin Wirathu (aka "The Burmese Bin Laden"), makes her part of the problem, not the solution.

"In a genocide, silence is complicity, and so it is with Aung San Suu Kyi," observed Penny Green, a law professor at the University of London and director of the State Crime Initiative, in a recent op-ed for The Independent. Imbued with "enormous moral and political capital", Green argued, Myanmar's opposition leader could have challenged "the vile racism and Islamophobia which characterises Burmese political and social discourse".

She didn't. Instead, she spent the past few years courting the Buddhist majority of Myanmar, whose votes she needs in order to be elected president in 2016 - if, that is, the military will allow her to be elected president, or even permit her to stand - by playing down the violence perpetrated against the Muslim minority, and trying to suggest a false equivalence between persecutors and victims of persecution. In a BBC interview in 2013, for example, Suu Kyi shamefully blamed the violence on "both sides", telling interviewer Mishal Husain that "Muslims have been targeted but Buddhists have also been subjected to violence".
These criticisms are certainly much harsher than Nick Kristoff's mild finger-wagging last June, where he observed that "[t]he moral giant has become a calculating politician." Because apparently getting a Nobel prize precludes you from being a calculating politician?

I certainly do not argue with the criticism; I agree that Suu Kyi should use her standing and influence to try to help the Rohingya. Nevertheless, these laments at her lack of heroism drive home the folly of assuming that a Nobel prize automatically makes a person (or organization or government) a champion of all things right and good. The Nobel committee gave Suu Kyi the prize after she had been put under house arrest for running for president in a democratic uprising - not for defending anybody's rights. Yes, she did that via nonviolent means, and her speeches since then all seem to indicate that she values "struggle against oppression" on some level, but during 18 years of house arrest the rest of the world decided who and what she was without ever seeing her in action. Now the world is disappointed that she is living up to a label that she never intended to claim for herself.
Why weren't we listening when the opposition leader and former political prisoner told CNN in 2013 that she had "been a politician all along", that her ambition was to become president of her country?

The sad truth is that when it comes to "The Lady", it is well past time to take off the rose-tinted glasses. To see Suu Kyi for what she is: A former prisoner of conscience, yes, but now a cynical politician who is willing to put votes ahead of principles; party political advancement ahead of innocent Rohingya lives.
Maybe we should indeed listen when she talks. "I’m always surprised when people speak as if I’ve just become a politician. I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party. And if that’s not a politician then I don’t know what is," is the full quote that is referenced above. Perhaps the mistake was assuming that she has not been cynical all these years. After all, optimistic and upright people tend to not make it to the presidency.

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