Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Suu Kyi & the Contradictions of State

As her recent tour of Europe makes clear, Aung San Suu Kyi remains popular. But two of Burma’s ethnic minority groups are wondering if her caution amounts to betrayal.

By William Lloyd-George for

LONDON – Khin Khin, an 8-year-old donning traditional Burmese clothes, jumped up and down hysterically at the front of the Royal Festival Hall in London last week. She’s never set foot in Burma before, and only speaks a few words of her family’s native language. But she understands the importance of the lady about to take the stage. “I love her so much, I am so excited to see her,” she says, ignoring her mother’s request that she sit down.

The spotlight spins right, and Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader and democracy icon, gracefully enters the hall. For Khin Khin, and the young friends around her, this is the first time they have seen her; like the rest of the hall, they jump excitedly, clapping hands. “I can’t believe it,” screams one young man behind Khin Khin.

For most of the 2,500 members of the U.K.’s Burmese community, crammed into the hall, this was the first time they had ever seen their country’s true leader. Despite winning a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, the military regime never allowed her to take power, and she was, instead, to spend 15 of the next 20 years under house arrest.

Despite Suu Kyi’s physical absence from Burma’s politics, and the fact most of the audience had been out of Burma for over twenty years, it felt as though everyone was still in the streets of Yangon, twenty years ago, cheering her on for the elections. “Suu Kyi has always been the leader of our country; we’ve remembered that in our hearts. There was nothing the regime could ever do to change this,” says Aung Kyaw Oo, 42, shaking with excitement.

But for one little mar on her popularity, wherever she went, her support seems not to have diminished one bit.

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She started in Thailand, where Thais and Burmese migrant workers jostled side by side to catch a glimpse of the democracy icon. Then, on to Norway, to formally accept, at last, a Nobel Peace Prize awarded her in 1991. She went to Switzerland, enjoyed a rock concert with Bono, spoke at Parliament in the U.K.—met with a complete standing ovation, spent time with David Cameron in his constituency, and planted trees with Prince Charles. Throughout her trip she received praise and awards, deserving for a lady who has sacrificed so much of her life to tirelessly fight for human rights and democracy in Burma.

But the hero’s welcome had its limits; the questions came from her own fellow Burmese. A haunting reminder of the atrocities, which are being committed daily, waited for her outside the Royal Festival Hall as she left the event. A dozen or so members of the Kachin community, who are living in the U.K., held a demonstration to raise awareness for the plight of their people.

Since June of last year, the state military has been advancing into the territory of the Kachin Independence Organization (K.I.O.), displacing around 70,000 Kachin civilians and committing countless human rights abuses. Despite several deadlines for ceasefires being made, the Burmese military continues to advance towards Laiza, the headquarters of the K.I.A., and is reported to be preparing for major offensives in the coming weeks.

The demonstration’s message was clearly directed at Suu Kyi, and what they argue has been weak criticism on her behalf against the military for the ongoing conflict. Placards were held high: “Reforming in central Burma, paying lives in Kachin State” and, “Enough silent democracy in solving the Kachin Crisis,” they read, clearly criticizing Suu Kyi’s diplomatic approach to the crisis and unwillingness to condemn the state military.

A few days before, at a panel held at the London School of Economics, one of the demonstration organizers, Ko Nawng, a Kachin student currently studying law in London, asked Suu Kyi why she had not condemned the Burmese military for their offensive on the Kachin people. In response, Suu Kyi, seemingly irritated by his question, said, “Resolving conflict is not about condemnation; it is about finding out the root, the cause of the conflict.” Suu Kyi went on to say that although she knew the Burmese military were in K.I.O. territory, independent monitors were needed to truly find out what was happening.

For Ko Nawng, and many members of the Kachin community living in the U.K., and all those who are now suffering in Kachin State, her answer was, at the least, a disappointment. “We feel really discouraged by her answer,” Ko Nawng told The Diplomat.

“We understand she is in a difficult position, and treading carefully not to upset the hardliners, but she really needs to condemn the human rights abuses taking place, and the suffering the regime’s military is inflicting on our people.”

Ko Nawng went on to explain that Suu Kyi risks losing the support of the ethnic nationalities who have long been distrustful of the ‘Burman’ leaders. “By not giving her direct and undue support to the Kachin people, Suu Kyi is only radicalizing the Kachin to feel there is no use working with the Burman people,” says Ko Nawng.

“She should be a leader for all the ethnic nationalities and stand up for our rights like the moral icon and human rights defender she is.”

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As a result of Suu Kyi’s lack of condemnation, the Kachin community decided to boycott a celebration between all ethnic groups in the U.K. on Suu Kyi’s final day.

“We have nothing to celebrate, our people are dying, and starving; we should be condemning the military regime, not dancing and singing. There is still a lot of work to do, it is not yet time to rejoice,” said Ko Nawng.

The Kachin are not the only community in the U.K., or back in Burma, who are unhappy with Suu Kyi.

To voice their disappointment with Suu Kyi’s opinion on the sectarian violence taking place in Arakan State, the Rohingya community also boycotted Suu Kyi’s farewell event.

“We are not happy with the way Suu Kyi has spoken about the situation,” says Tun Kin, Director of the Burmese Rohingya Organization in London.

Asked in Oslo whether the Rohingya are one of Burma’s ethnic nationalities, Suu Kyi said she did not know. When asked at the Royal Festival Hall what was the solution to the Rohingya crisis, Suu Kyi said it was due to problems with the immigration law. This has enraged Rohingya communities.

“How can she say it is down to immigration? At independence, the Rohingya people were here, and we were able to vote in the 2010 elections,” argues Tun Kin.

“This is not a result of immigration law, but due to problems with citizenship.” As the violence appears to be calming down, accusations are flying as to who started it and who did the most damage. Evidence is slowly emerging which indicates Rohingya likely suffered a lot more. It has also become clear that regional state military units were supporting Buddhist Rhakine mob attacks on Rohingya communities.

Since the crisis in Arakan state started, many democracy activists have voiced their hatred for the Rohingya people and pleaded for the government to deny them Burmese citizenship. While Suu Kyi, and these so-called democracy activists should be focusing on human rights abuses committed by the military, extra-judicial killings by the military of the Rohingya, and aiming for some form of conflict resolution, it appears that human rights might have been put aside for impartiality, public support and to satisfy deeply felt racism.

Despite her somewhat reserved nature, it is clear that Suu Kyi knows Burma is far from the reformed and democratic state she has fought for. “We are just at the beginning of the road. We need to be extremely careful within the next three years,” Suu Kyi said at a ceremony in France.

William Lloyd-George is a freelance journalist based on the Thai-Burma border. His work has appeared in TIME, The Independent, Bangkok Post, Afternposten, Irrawaddy and Global Post among others.