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How do you solve a problem like Aung San Suu Kyi?

By Dr Azeem Ibrahim
March 28, 2016

Just as Aung San Suu Kyi gets ready to take over the reins of power in Myanmar after a long and dramatic three decades of fighting for democracy in her country, a new biography reveals she has made rather off-colour remarks about an interview in 2013. It would seem that Ms Suu Kyi does not like being interviewed by Muslims. Even if they work for the BBC who have consistently covered her political career in a positive light.

The interview with Mishal Husain did get rather more pointed than the treatment Ms Suu Kyi expects from Western media, but it was by no means hostile. It was a simple question about the ethnic violence targeted at the Muslim Rohingya community in the country which peaked in 2012 and 2013 and which led to hundreds of thousands being displaced into internal refugee camps in Myanmar or in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia.

And since then the problems have only gotten worse. The same systematic attacks on the Rohingya minority are behind the South East Asian migration crisis last year, a humanitarian disaster that we expect will be repeated this year when the spring brings calmer waters to the Bay of Bengal to enable refugees to take to the seas again.

The problem with Aung San Suu Kyi, as one of the more famous recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace, is that she is the country’s best hope for democracy and for bringing Myanmar back into global society. But if anyone hopes that she will also heal this deep rift in her society, an inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflict that is on the edge of tipping over into full blown genocide (according to United to End Genocide), there is little reason to get your hopes up.


In the current media coverage of this incident, reporters have gone to great lengths to show that Ms Suu Kyi is not as anti-Muslim as she sounds. They cite the fact that her first boyfriend in at Oxford in England was from Pakistan and that one of her political mentors from Myanmar was Muslim. And perhaps she is not anti-Muslim. With someone in her position it is rather difficult to say, because she has had to play her cards close to her chest for so long while under the repressive regime of the military junta.

"There is plenty of evidence to show that “the Lady” is not quite the Nobel Laureate we want her to be" (Dr. Azeem Ibrahim) 

But it is the case that in her youth she was very much against Muslims being in Burma according to the research I undertook during my forthcoming book on the Rohingya. It is also the case that she has systematically denied that Muslims have been deliberately targeted and kept making apologetics for the “climate of fear” Buddhists in Myanmar feel from “Islam”, even though the Buddhists make up 80 percent of the country, while Muslims make up a mere 4 percent.

In the volatile politics of inter-community violence in Myanmar, every voice for peace counts. In Myanmar, no voice counts as much as that of Suu Kyi, “the Lady” of the nation. Yet her voice is not heard in defense of this, one of the most vulnerable groups in the world at the moment. If this has been some kind of political play she felt she had to make to get into power, this week she will run out of excuses.

As she takes over direct or indirect control of the civilian government, she will have the power to address this crisis in her country. We will have to wait and see. But there is plenty of evidence to show that “the Lady” is not quite the Nobel Laureate we want her to be. So I don’t recommend any of you hold your breath.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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