- Stars (0)
What Happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?
A human-rights icon’s fall from grace in Myanmar
By Artist Arinze Stanley and Story by Ben Rhodes is a former deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama.
The first time I met Aung San Suu Kyi, she embodied hope. It was November 2012, and we were in her weathered house at 54 University Avenue, in Yangon, where she’d been held prisoner by the ruling Burmese junta for the better part of two decades. She sat at a small, round table with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Derek Mitchell, who had recently been named the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar in more than 20 years. At 67, Suu Kyi was poised and striking, a flower tucked into her long black hair, which was streaked with gray. Looking up at the worn books on the shelves behind her, I imagined the hours she must have spent reading them in enforced solitude. A picture of Mahatma Gandhi looked down with a serene smile.
The meeting was a high-water mark for three historic figures. Obama had just decisively won a second term as president. Clinton, then secretary of state, was about to prepare her own run for the presidency. Released from house arrest in November 2010, Suu Kyi had just been elected to the Myanmar Parliament in a by-election that her party had won in a rout. In a country where any unauthorized assembly had until recently been illegal, tens of thousands of people had greeted Obama’s motorcade. Later, he would address the Burmese people at the University of Yangon, which had been shuttered since shortly after students were gunned down in the pro-democracy protests that followed Suu Kyi’s 1988 entry into politics. It felt as if a heavy shroud was being lifted off the country.
At her house, Suu Kyi spoke with pride about the work that her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was doing in Parliament, challenging the military and learning the intricacies of parliamentary maneuvers—the nuts and bolts of the democracy she said she wanted to build. In her years as a political prisoner, Suu Kyi—the daughter of Aung San, who led the country to the brink of independence in the 1940s—had become a potent symbol, an international icon of resistance against the military junta and the repository of the Burmese people’s remaining hopes. But she spoke to us as though she had no interest in being an icon. “I have always been a politician,” she told Obama firmly in her British-accented English.
After the meeting, as Obama’s motorcade snaked through a throng of Suu Kyi’s supporters, many of them holding posters with her face on it, he said something in the back of the limo that has stuck in my mind. “I used to be the face on the poster,” he said. “The image only fades.”
At the time, that seemed unlikely: Suu Kyi’s reputation still put her at the celestial heights occupied by the likes of Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, and Nelson Mandela. Since joining the country’s political resistance in 1988, she had survived detention, house arrest, and attacks on her life by the ruling junta; her bravery, eloquence, and persistence had won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and made her the world’s most prominent dissident. “The only real prison is fear,” she famously wrote, “and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
But Obama was prescient. The government Suu Kyi is now a part of—in April 2016 she became state counselor, a role similar to prime minister, after her party won a national election—has curtailed civil liberties and press freedoms, and carried out what the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Others have called it a genocide. Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced across the border to Bangladesh, into refugee camps, where disease is rampant and the children are malnourished and have almost no access to education.
The status of the Rohingya, who live in Rakhine State—which borders Bangladesh to the north and the Bay of Bengal to the west—has long been at issue. Many Burmese deny that the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group, referring to them as Bengalis—unauthorized immigrants from Bangladesh. This was codified into law in 1982, when legislation denied citizenship to anyone who had come to Myanmar during British rule; the junta used this law to deny citizenship to all Rohingya. In the late ’70s and again in the early ’90s, the military launched operations that brutally drove more than 300,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
A few months before Obama’s 2012 meeting with Suu Kyi, Muslim men in Rakhine State had allegedly raped a Buddhist woman. In response, Rakhine Buddhists attacked the Rohingya, burning their villages; ultimately more than 100,000 Rohingya were displaced into squalid camps. Conditions for the estimated 1.1 million Rohingya in Rakhine State became more precarious. In late 2016 and early 2017, attacks by Rohingya insurgents led to wildly disproportionate responses by the Burmese military, culminating in the systematic expulsion of those 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh amid allegations of horrifying violence.
Suu Kyi has done little to stop the atrocities. Her seemingly callous indifference has felt to many outsiders like a betrayal. How can Suu Kyi, an avatar of human rights for so many years, stand by while her government violently tramples them? Western politicians and media have heaped criticism on her; many of the organizations that championed her cause are rescinding the awards they once rushed to give her. But Suu Kyi has refused to shift course. “The obstinacy that made her into an icon makes her dig in,” a Western diplomat who has worked with her told me. “She likes the adulation and the prizes—but in the end she thinks she’s right and they’re wrong.”