In recent months, the United Nations has hardened its view of the Rohingya’s plight in Myanmar to be that of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” as expressed by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. But earlier this month, at a session of Human Rights Council in Geneva, Zeid asked (presumably not rhetorically) who can “rule out that elements of genocide may be present?” More recently, Zeid said that you also cannot rule out the possibility that one day Aung San Suu Kyi (along with head of the armed forces Aung Min Hlaing) will find herself in the dock on genocide charges. This certainly raises the stakes from simply taking away her Nobel Peace Prize or a few honorary titles awarded by foreign governments and cities.
Zeid’s comment, as to be expected, has reared the head of Suu Kyi’s apologists, a legion that is growing smaller by the day, though remains rather persistent and dogged. The apologia for Suu Kyi tends to rest on four arguments. I’ll begin with the most persuasive.
- Suu Kyi, as the de-facto civilian leader of Myanmar, has no control over the country’s military forces, which have acted independently of civilian government.
This is an argument favored by many of her claquers, but it has countless flaws. The most obvious is that, even if Suu Kyi has no direct control over the military, she has tactically vindicated its actions and, more importantly, refused to come to the defense of the Rohingya. It is commonly reported that she has said “nothing” about the issue, or been “silent” on it, though neither is true.
She has repeatedly refused to even call the minority group by its name, referring to the Rohingya mainly as “refugees.” Zeid said of this: “To strip their name from them is dehumanizing to the point where you begin to believe that anything is possible.”
Her office has described some accounts of the atrocities as “fake news,” including the rape of women and girls by soldiers. She has attempted at moral equivalency, blaming terrorist attacks for being as bad as what the military is doing, when the numbers inflicted by the former pale in comparison to the latter’s.
It took her until November to actually visit Rakhine state for the first time, a PR visit where her apparent message was that all is fine, stressing some Rohingya decided not to flee, unlike more than the 650,000 others who have. “I hope everything will go fine as local villagers handle the rebuilding process,” she said, not bothering to mention why they needed to rebuild in the first case (in some cases because their entire villages were burnt to the ground).
She has also said the Rohingya can return to Myanmar, as long as they can prove they used to live in Rakhine, a flinty comment considering most likely fled without any documentation, and considering the Rohingya have long been stripped of citizenship, which Suu Kyi’s government hasn’t said they can have.
In fact, her spokesman last month blamed Bangladesh for not wanting to send the Rohingya back, “because [the Bangladeshi government is] afraid they will lose international donations,” a most reprehensible comment about a country that has willingly, and to its own detriment, taken in hundreds of thousands of people.
Then there have been flat out lies. Her cabinet, which she reportedly strictly controls, has in the past denied that any Rohingya have been killed by the military. “There is no case of the military killing Muslim civilians,” the social welfare minister said in October, “Muslim people killed their own Muslim people.”
In a speech to parliament in mid-September, she said there had been “no armed clashes or clearance operations” since September 5, something contested at the time by many independent observers. In the same speech, she claimed that “all people in Rakhine state have access to education and healthcare without discrimination,” which simply isn’t true.
Daring at self-pity, and self-aggrandizement, she has constantly tried to redirect international empathy for the Rohingya’s plight to her own past struggles. “We know very well, more than most, what it means to be deprived of human rights and democratic protection,” she is thought to have told the Turkish leader in September. One suspects that she now knows, more than most, what it means to deprive others of human rights and democratic protection, as well.
Let’s attempt a brief thought experiment. Imagine that it wasn’t Suu Kyi, the Nobelist and (former) international democracy icon, in charge of Myanmar’s civilian government. Instead, it is some person you never heard of, who hasn’t been beatified by the likes of Luc Besson or Hillary Clinton. Now, imagine that you are told this individual has done all of the above and, as well as disregarding ethnic cleansing, has also censored newspapers, arrested journalists, attacked honest reporting as “fake news,” and failed to live up to most of their electoral promises.
I imagine, or hope, that the reader would come to conclusion that the leader shouldn’t be supported. Indeed, I suspect few politicians would find the level of support (nay sympathy and pity) if they didn’t have the PR history of Suu Kyi. Whichever way one looks at it, Suu Kyi has become a synonym, or par excellence, of Christopher Hitchen’s penetrating maxim that some people’s actions are judged by their reputations and not their reputations by their actions.
- Even if Suu Kyi has justified the military’s action, she has no power to stop their ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
This is a not-so-subtle extension of the first apologia, only it gives certain ground on her deplorable comments. But the subtlety is that Suu Kyi is suddenly provided some autonomy in this defense, which some loyalists deny her, many of whom think of her as still being under a sort of house arrest, albeit in the lower house of parliament.
- Suu Kyi’s civilian government has restrained the military from what could have been a far worse ethnic cleansing.
This might be a justification, but it is a hard one to prove. (Nor, is it that much of an excuse; an accomplice that convinces a murderer to slay only 10, not 15, people is no less an accomplice). Much easier to prove is that the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya didn’t start in its worst manifestation and then ease off. Instead, it got increasingly barbaric as the year went on.
- Holding Suu Kyi responsible for the Rohingya’s plight would be disastrous for Myanmar’s democratic movement, likely handing power back exclusively to the military leadership.
By far, this is the most reprehensible apologia, tarnishing not only the name of democracy but also embracing the worst of realpolitik and the vilest of utilitarianism. In short, it justifies the sacrificing of hundreds of thousands of people for the sake of political power. And, if true, would admit Suu Kyi is willing to sacrifice one portion of society for the possible benefit of the majority.
Imagine I told you that if Suu Kyi can bring about economic reform, introduce some progressive social measures and, even, put an end to Myanmar’s endemic corruption, and that this would justify her vindications of possible genocide. I trust the reader would consider such a statement deplorable.
But in this defense of Suu Kyi one also finds a fallacy. To argue that Suu Kyi and the NLD ought to stay in government because there is the distinct possibility of domestic reform is to admit that she actually does hold some power. Not only that, she must have considerable power, given the difficulty of reforming a system that has been in place for decades, and held in place by once-hermetic military sadists.
So, either Suu Kyi doesn’t have any real power or she does. Her apologists cannot have it both ways. If she has no real power, then her retention of numerous political portfolios and de-facto control of civilian government is the sign of a naive opportunist, not a moralist.
And if she doesn’t have the power to even criticize the actions of the country’s military, what chance does she have to actually reform a political system still dominated by that military. Or, even more basely, if she cannot find the moral strength to denounce a possible genocide (or, simply, call a people by their name) why on earth should we believe she has the moral strength to battle corruption, or poverty, or human rights abuses not related to a Muslim minority?
In one sense, her civilian leadership has become inane. Worse still, stained by association. The NLD might have won a democratic election, but that’s it. Indeed, this article hasn’t even begun to scratch at what is currently happening to civil society in Myanmar, including the detention of two Reuters reporters this month. Even if the Rohingya ethnic cleansing wasn’t taking place, there would be few good things to say about what her civilian government is currently doing, nor able to argue that the pro-democratic party is acting in a democratic manner.
The only moral thing left to do (though it might now be too late) is for Suu Kyi to resign, extract the NLD from the current regime and regain some bloody courage by vehemently opposing genocide in her country, in opposition. Let the military generals take the opprobrium from the international community and let them stand trial alone for genocide, if such an event actually happens.
I feel compelled to admit that history is littered with politicians of contradictions. Lincoln was a volunteer captain in the Black Hawk War, one instance in the genocide of Native Americans, but would later become the Great Emancipator. Maybe, then, historians will look upon Suu Kyi in a more kindly light. Today, however, I cannot justify taking such dispassionate stance. No, she deserves nothing but opprobrium and censure.