Latest Highlight

Once Burma's beacon of hope, where is Aung San Suu Kyi now?

Aung San Suu Kyi with Barack Obama during a press conference at her residence in Rangoon in November 2014. Photo: AFP/Getty

By Colin Freeman
June 10, 2015

As veteran democracy campaigner heads to China for first visit, she faces accusations she has turned her back on human rights causes such the perscution of the Rohingyas

Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran Burmese democracy campaigner, will make her first visit to China on Tuesday, amid accusations that she has turned her back on human rights causes in her own bid for power.

Ms Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigns for political reform in Burma, is doing a five-day long tour of China that will include a meeting with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president.

Human rights groups want her to use the visit to speak out about the case of her follow peace prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year sentence for political subversion after campaigning to end China's one-party rule.

However, they fear she is unlikely to do so, given her much-criticised failure already to make similar representations on behalf of Burma's Rohingya Muslim minority. They have been fleeing the country in droves in recent years because of persecution at the hands of extremists within Burma's Buddhist majority.

Rohingya and Bangleshi migrants wait on board a fishing boat off the coadt of Indonesia. Both groups are increasingly taking to the sea to escape conditions in their home countries.

Critics of Ms Suu Kyi say her silence on the Rohingya issue shows that she is now more concerned about her own National League for Democracy (NLD) party's bid for power, which is likely to suffer a popular backlash if she speaks out in the Rohingya's behalf.

Ms Suu Kyi insists that raising such issues publicly can backfire, and that there is no point "taking the moral high ground for the sake of sounding good".

Beijing is keen to woo Ms Suu Kyi as a way of hedging its bets politically in Burma, which is still run by a quasi-military government but which will hold landmark general elections in November where the NLD is likely to do well.

The Sino-Burmese relationship has been strained this year as fighting between Burmese government troops and ethnic Chinese rebels along the border with China killed at least five people in March. China is also anxious about Burma becoming more engaged with the US, which has lifted some sanctions against its government.

But Ms Suu Kyi's visit will also focus attention on China's own patchy human rights record, which has worsened recently as Mr Xi oversees a generalised stifling of dissent. Most symbolic of that is the case of Mr Liu, a writer and literary critic whose arrest in 2008 sparked international condemnation. In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China," a move that infuriated Beijing.

Phyo Zayar Thaw, one of two MPs travelling with Suu Kyi, said that he did not know if issues of human rights would be raised during her trip. But Hu Jia, a Chinese prominent dissident and close friend of Liu Xiaobo, told the Reuters news agency that if Ms Suu Kyi did not call for Mr Liu's release, "it will bring some degree of regret".

"Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and in Chinese prison, there sits another Nobel Peace Prize Laureate," he said. "This is an unavoidable topic for the Chinese Communist Party and is extremely embarrassing."

Such comments will add to the existing criticisms over Ms Suu Kyi's failure to be more vocal about the Rohingas, many of whom have been killed or driven from their homes in recent years as a result of attacks by mobs of militant Buddhists. They are by Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk labelled "The Burmese Bin Laden."

The Burmese government has been criticised internationally for not doing more to stop the violence, which has led to large numbers of Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In desperation, many have used the services of people smugglers, who last month were revealed to have killed and imprisoned large numbers of them around the Malaysian-Thai borders.

Defenders of Ms Suu Kyi point out that if she raises their plight publicly, she may will jeopardise her delicate relationship with the Burmese military, which still wields great power. The same considerations apply, they say, with her potential new allies in China.

"Those who criticise me for not condemning one side or the other - they've never said exactly what they hope will come out of such condemnation," Ms Suu Kyi told Canada’s Globe and Mail in an interview in April. "You're just taking the moral high ground for the sake of sounding good - it sounds a little irresponsible."

Such comments cut little ice with Ms Suu Kyi's detractors, who are disappointed that a woman who became such an international beacon of democracy during her years of house arrest should retreat into diplomatese.

What it may prove, however, is that when entering the messy business of everyday politics, even an activist so feted as her may end up tarnishing her halo.

Write A Comment

Rohingya Exodus