A Much-Changed Icon, Aung San Suu Kyi Speaks About Rohingya


She steadfastly refused to criticize the Myanmar military, which has been accused of a vast campaign of killing, rape and village-burning.

Instead, she boasted that Muslims living in the violence-torn area had access to health care and radio broadcasts.

It was a remarkable parroting of the language of the generals who locked her up for the better part of two decades. That confinement made a political legend out of her: an elegant and steadfast figure who vanquished the military with no weapons but her principles.

But officials in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have accused the Rohingya, who have suffered decades of persecution and have been mostly stripped of their citizenship, of faking rape and torching their own houses in a bid to hijack international public opinion. She has done nothing to correct the record.

A Facebook page associated with her office suggested that international aid groups were colluding with Rohingya militants, whose attack on Myanmar police posts and an army base precipitated the fierce military counteroffensive. In a statement, her government labeled the insurgent strikes “brutal acts of terrorism.”

It has been a stunning reversal for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a 72-year-old paragon of moral authority, who was once celebrated among the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to her for her “nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

Photo

Supporters of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, on Tuesday.

Credit
Lynn Bo Bo/European Pressphoto Agency

But there were worrisome signs from the moment she entered a power-sharing agreement with the military after her National League for Democracy won 2015 elections.

Myanmar’s generals — who ruled the country for nearly half a century and turned a resource-rich land once known as Burma into an economic failure — stage-managed every facet of the political transition. The Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is known, made sure to keep the most important levers of power for itself. It also effectively relegated Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to the post of state counselor by designing a Constitution that kept her from the presidency.

“It’s always a dance with the generals,” said U Win Htein, an N.L.D. party elder. “She needs to be very quick on her feet.”

Mr. Win Htein, a former military officer who served alongside some of the Tatmadaw’s highest-ranking generals, warned that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had to placate an army with a history of pushing aside civilian leaders under the pretext of defending national sovereignty.

“The army, they are watching her every word,” he said. “One misstep on the Muslim issue, and they can make their move.”

Yet even before the compromises that accompanied her ascension to power, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was already distancing herself from the hopes invested in her by the international community.

“Let me be clear that I would like to be seen as a politician, not some human rights icon,” she said in an interview shortly after her release from house arrest in 2010.

Such a recasting of her role has disappointed Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In an open letter, Desmond Tutu, the South African former archbishop, advised his “dearly beloved younger sister” that “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi social entrepreneur and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was even more pointed.

“She should not have received a Nobel Peace Prize if she says, sorry, I’m a politician, and the norms of democracy don’t suit me,” he said in a telephone interview with The New York Times. “The whole world stood by her for decades, but today she has become the mirror image of Aung San Suu Kyi by destroying human rights and denying citizenship to the Rohingya.”

“All we can do,” he said, “is pray for the return of the old Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Beyond her personal legacy, the direction of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership carries global consequence.

“People are invested in her because we need her to succeed. This is a democratic moment, and she represents Burma’s democratic promise,” said Derek Mitchell, the former American ambassador to Myanmar. “The country sits at the crossroads of Asia in a region where democracy is in retreat, which makes Burma’s success even more important.”

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