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Myanmar Lady's star beginning to fade

By Joshua Carroll
April 21, 2014

Many Aung San Suu Kyi followers say she has failed to speak out on ethnic issues, including mid-2012 communal violence which led to attacks on Myanmar's Rohingya

For years, former political prisoners such as Kyaw Min lauded the political activism of Myanmar's iconic Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Imprisoned for almost a decade in a Myanmar detention center, he cheered on Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) as it led protests against the country's savage military dictatorship. But after she was freed from a total of almost 15 years of house arrest by a reformist president in 2012, he lost faith.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer a human rights activist," Kyaw Min, who in 1990 was elected an MP in the same elections won by his NLD allies, told the Anadolu Agency this weekend. The elections were subsequently annulled by the regime.

Next year, the NLD could win another vote and Suu Kyi may become president if she can convince the government to overturn a law that bars her.

But the prospect no longer inspires Kyaw Min: “She is not a strong opposition leader, she just wants to bargain for the presidency," he said.

The Lady, as she is known locally, has assumed demigod status in Myanmar. Calendars and posters bearing her image hang on walls in homes and shops across the country, while tourists cue at street stalls to purchase multicolored fridge magnets and T-shirts emblazoned with her image - the latest Indochina must-haves.

But since the country began liberalizing, Suu Kyi has bitterly disappointed many followers who say she has failed to speak out on a number of ethnic issues, among them the communal violence that erupted in mid-2012, which led to ferocious attacks on Myanmar's Muslim community.

Kyaw Min - who belongs to a persecuted Muslim minority called the Rohingya - believes along with many others that Suu Kyi is afraid of jeopardizing her chance of becoming president in 2015 by upsetting both the powerful military, and potential voters in the Buddhist majority country, where the Rohingya are deeply unpopular. 

She has repeatedly rejected accusations, supported by Human Rights Watch, of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, describing the term as “a little extreme” in front of an audience at Australia’s Sydney Opera House last year. 

That has rankled many international supporters; including Mark Farmaner of the human rights group Burma Campaign UK.

“She is simply wrong in law to deny that ethnic cleansing has happened without there having been a proper investigation,” he told the Anadolu Agency.

"At the very least she should support an independent international investigation.”

Suu Kyi has also remained largely silent in the face of a military offensive in northern Kachin State that has created tens of thousands of refugees, prompting a coalition of Kachin rights groups in Australia to boycott her visit to the country last year. 

The NLD leader drew further criticism from Kachin campaigners for reaffirming her fondness for the military. Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San, has long expressed similar sentiments towards the army.

“The issue here is between the Kachin people and the military, and the founder of the military was Aung San Suu Kyi’s father,” said Jaw Gun of the Kachin Peace Network. 

In 2012, less than two years after being released from house arrest, Suu Kyi led the NLD to a landslide victory in largely free and fair by-elections. 

Now she is pushing for constitutional reforms that will allow her to run for president in 2015, and is gearing up for a second round of by-elections later this year that will see Myanmar’s political parties test the waters ahead of the 2015 voting. 

In order to become president, Suu Kyi will need to convince the military to overturn a rule that bars people with foreign family members from leading the country – her late husband was British, as are her two sons.

Many say she has gone too far in her bid to compromise on a number of issues with the powerful military establishment, which is guaranteed an iron grip on the country’s parliament under a law that gives a quarter of all seats to the army. 

But Farmaner, despite his willingness to criticize her, believes the reaction from activists in the West to Suu Kyi’s silence has overshadowed far graver wrongdoing by the regime.

“Initial shock and disappointment at her failure to speak out about attacks against the Kachin and the Rohingya led some activists to be even more critical of her than they were of president Thein Sein, which was disproportionate,“ he said. 

He added: “Thein Sein is probably the least scrutinized ‎head of state in the world, yet responsible for terrible human rights violations.” 

Farmaner also says that Suu Kyi has changed her political tactics in the last year, and is concerned about the faltering reform process: “She is becoming more critical and has resumed trying to mobilize public and international support for her goals, as opposed to only negotiating in private meetings with the president as she did in 2011 and 2012.” 

After his release from prison, Kyaw Min returned to politics and is now the president of the pro-Rohingya Human Rights and Democracy Party, one of many ethnic political groups that may try and capitalize on Suu Kyi’s unpopularity in certain regions. 

“What she thinks is that the public cannot make her president, the power of the public is not strong enough to change the constitution and … only the military can change it,” Kyaw Min said. 

Some of her defenders say she has been put in an impossible position by people who don’t want to see her in power. Win Naing is chairman of the NLD’s branch in Thandwe, where five people were killed last year in communal violence that saw Buddhist mobs rampage through villages burning homes. 

He told AA that he believes that a series of nationalist groups, including a monk-led anti-Muslim movement known as 969, and a vehemently anti-Rohingya political party called the Rakhine State Development Party, are stoking anti-Muslim hatred, partly motivated by a desire to derail Suu Kyi’s bid for the presidency. 

“The authorities, the government, the Rakhine State Development Party, 969 and the [ruling] Union Solidarity and Development Party are all together fighting against the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi,” Win Naing said. 

Suu Kyi’s NLD is likely to suffer at the polls in certain ethnic areas. But the gravest obstacle she faces is getting the constitution amended. Even many of those who are disappointed by her current stance will not go as far as to vote against her if she is allowed to run for president.

"I have no idea if they will change the constitution for her," Htay Aung, a bookshop owner in Yangon, told the AA. "But if it is changed she will win. People love her."

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