During her fifteen years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi—now the de-facto leader of Myanmar—found solace in the poetry and novels of authors such as George Eliot, Victor Hugo, John le Carré, and Anna Akhmatova. Another favorite, she has said, was Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” an epic travelogue about Yugoslavia written on the eve of the Second World War. West described a country that Aung San Suu Kyi would have recognized as being much like her own: a fragile mosaic of ethnicities, languages, historical backgrounds, and cultural traditions.
In a short essay called “Let’s Visit Burma,” published in 1985, Aung San Suu Kyi described the “colourful and diverse origins and customs” of her compatriots. Rakhine state, in the west of Myanmar, was something of a “mystery” in this respect, she wrote. Its population had originated from “Mongolian and Aryan peoples who had come over from India.” Owing to its geographical position, Bengal had also “played a major part” in its history and culture. Among the state’s numerous ethnic groups —Arakanese, Thek, Dainet, Myo, Mramagyi, and Kaman—others displayed “the influence of Bengali.” But she assured readers that while there are “more people of the Islamic faith to be found in [Rakhine] than anywhere else in Burma,” it had been “predominately Buddhist” for centuries.
By groups that “displayed the influence of Bengali,” Aung San Suu Kyi certainly meant the Rohingya, a stateless minority in northern Rakhine that most Myanmar people consider to be Bangladeshi immigrants. Since August 25th, when militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police posts and an Army base, as many as a thousand Rohingya have been killed and over three hundred and seventy thousand (more than third of the Rohingya population) have been forced into neighboring Bangladesh, human-rights groups estimate. Aung San Suu Kyi’s champions are now contemplating her fall from grace, appalled that the Nobel Peace Prize winner remains silent about and unmoved by a crisis described this week by the U.N.’s human-rights chief as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” There have been widespread calls for the Nobel Committee to strip her of the prize. But there is no statutory procedure for doing so, nor is it clear how this would end the murder, rape, and mass exodus of the Rohingya at the hands of Myanmar’s Army.
The most urgent and powerful appeals to Aung San Suu Kyi have come from her fellow Nobel laureates. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the prize for her advocacy of girls’ education, condemned the “tragic and shameful treatment” of the Rohingya. “I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.” Addressing a letter to his “dear sister,” the anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu wrote of his “profound sadness” and called on Aung San Suu Kyi to end the military-led operations. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep,” he wrote. The Dalai Lama subsequently urged her to find a peaceful solution to the humanitarian crisis, saying that Buddha would have “definitely helped those poor Muslims.”
This is not the first time that laureates have spoken of their displeasure with Aung San Suu Kyi. In December last year, when the military conducted another brutal offensive against the Rohingya, thirteen Nobel winners, including Muhammad Yunus, Shirin Ebadi, and Leymah Gbowee, signed an open letter deploring the Army’s use of helicopter gunships, arbitrary arrests, and the rape of women. “Despite repeated appeals to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” they concluded, using her honorific, “we are frustrated that she has not taken any initiative to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas. Daw Suu Kyi is the leader and is the one with primary responsibility to lead, and lead with courage, humanity and compassion.”
When Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her own prize, in Oslo, in June, 2012, she said that, under house arrest, “it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. . . . What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. . . . I began to understand the significance of the Nobel Prize.” Since becoming State Counsellor, in 2016, however, she has retreated into the solitude of her former life. Her husband, Michael Aris, died, of cancer, in 1999—she was prevented by the military regime from saying goodbye to him—and she rarely sees her sons. People close to her describe a life of morbid isolation, living alone in the administrative capital, Naypyidaw—arguably the dreariest city on earth—poring over state documents late into the night. She rarely gives interviews, and is reluctant to delegate responsibilities. (There is no obvious successor to lead her party when she’s gone.)
There’s no evidence that the laureates’ chorus of indignation has any bearing on Aung San Suu Kyi, or whether its declarations can break the spell of isolation and bring her back to the outside world. The only response she has made to the present crisis in Rakhine was a Facebook post, detailing a phone conversation she had with Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In it, she criticized the “huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.” While Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent, the offices and ministries under her charge have not, describing the Rohingya as Bengalis and publicly advocating the use of force in certain situations. “If they are going to harm you, you can shoot them,” Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, U Zaw Htay, said. The most egregious case of the recklessness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came last month, when it accused international aid workers of supporting terrorists, prompting fears for the safety of thousands of people in Myanmar employed by charities and N.G.O.s. There have been demands that the U.S. government stop using the name “Rohingya”, and when a Rohingya woman gave details of an alleged gang rape, Aung San Suu Kyi’s office dismissed it as “fake rape.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer, Peter Popham, writes in “The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy” that she “has become an object lesson in the slipperiness of the concept of heroism, and the folly of hero-worship.” Indeed, the tenor of the denunciations suggests that Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics are angered as much by a sense of personal betrayal as they are by her silence. She has exposed the artlessness with which many in the West reduced a complex personality into a Rapunzel of the East, emptied of her more illiberal traits, such as an authoritarian leadership style, and some potentially unsavory views on Muslims. The BBC correspondent, Fergal Keane, who probably knows Aung San Suu Kyi better than any other foreign journalist, has admitted that “we knew too little of Myanmar and its complex narratives of ethnic rivalries. . . . And we knew too little of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.” In a rare interview with Keane in April, she denied that ethnic cleansing was taking place in Rakhine, and resisted the cruder perceptions of her persona: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But, on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa, either.”
Unlike Thatcher, a consummate political operator, many have commented upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s weakness as a politician. Her failure to act against the military operation in Rakhine, so the argument goes, is not a result of her bigotry but because she is unable to outmaneuver the generals in Myanmar’s very own game of thrones.
Few can blame Aung San Suu Kyi for her political impotence. The constitutional arrangements of Myanmar would foil the shrewdest operative. Designed by the military, in 2008, the constitution gives the armed forces control of three ministries—the interior, borders, and defense—that are beyond the oversight of the civilian government. It bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President, and allows the Army to veto any attempt at constitutional reform. The irony, then, is that if Aung San Suu Kyi once represented the power of the powerless, she is now powerless in power, taking the flak for the Army’s unrelenting inhumanity in its fight against ethnic rebels on the borderlands, and the Rohingya.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s powerlessness hardly matters on this issue, anyway: hatred of the Rohingya is one thing that unites Myanmar. Despite their political differences, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, and the military are in lockstep when it comes to the problem of northern Rakhine. Years of xenophobic, anti-Rohingya propaganda, pushed from the late nineteen-seventies by the military government, endures in the nation’s collective memory, and is stoked by the hate sermons of Buddhist monks like Ashin Wirathu. By speaking up for the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi imperils her standing in the eyes of her fellow-citizens.
When she was thrust into the public eye, in 1988, it was her lineage, rather than her politics, that was the driving force. As the daughter of General Aung San, the nationally revered founder of modern Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi was at the mercy of activists who recognized the dynastic force that her name, and looks (she is the spitting image of her father), lent to their struggle against the generals. Responsible for negotiating Burma’s independence from the British Empire, Aung San was assassinated by paramilitary forces of the former Prime Minister U Saw, in 1947, six months before its official declaration. Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old at the time, but there’s no doubting her love and admiration for him. In a 2013 radio interview with the BBC, she described her father as “my first love and my best love.” This filial piety is perhaps the key to understanding Aung San Suu Kyi as saint and sinner.
Her father was an extraordinarily tenacious, even ruthless, man who navigated between the British and Japanese empires in order to achieve his objective—a unified, independent Burma. He was also a Burmese nationalist who cared little for the nation’s ethnic minorities. Today he is universally venerated in Myanmar, while few outside the country know who he is. This has almost certainly influenced Aung San Suu Kyi, who mimics his leadership style, moral code, and political priorities. The Rohingya are a distraction from her overriding ambition: to complete her father’s dream of unifying the country and ending a civil war that has raged between ethnic rebel forces and the Myanmar government since 1948. As Rebecca West wrote in “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” in a passage that Aung San Suu Kyi likely associated with her father when reading the book under house arrest, “it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was a marvel! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’ ”
Aung San Suu Kyi, also called Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, (born June 19, 1945, Rangoon, Burma [now Yangon, Myanmar]), politician and opposition leader of Myanmar, daughter of Aung San (a martyred national hero of independent Burma) and Khin Kyi (a prominent Burmese diplomat), and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. She has held multiple governmental posts since 2016.
Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old when her father, then the de facto prime minister of what would shortly become independent Burma, was assassinated. She attended schools in Burma until 1960, when her mother was appointed ambassador to India. After further study in India, she attended the University of Oxford, where she met her future husband, the British scholar Michael Aris. She and Aris had two children and lived a rather quiet life until 1988, when she returned to Burma to nurse her dying mother, leaving her husband and sons behind. There the mass slaughter of protesters against the brutal and unresponsive rule of military strongman U Ne Win led her to speak out against him and to begin a nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights in that country.
In July 1989 the military government of the newly named Union of Myanmar (since 2011, Republic of the Union of Myanmar) placed Suu Kyi under house arrest in Yangon (Rangoon) and held her incommunicado. The military offered to free her if she agreed to leave Myanmar, but she refused to do so until the country was returned to civilian government and political prisoners were freed. The National League for Democracy (NLD), which Suu Kyi had cofounded in 1988, won more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats that were contested in 1990, but the results of that election were ignored by the military government (in 2010 the military government formally annulled the results of the 1990 election). The news that Suu Kyi was being given the Nobel Prize set off intense vilification of her by the government, and, since she was still being detained, her son, Alexander Aris, accepted the award in her place.
Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in July 1995, although restrictions were placed on her ability to travel outside Yangon. The following year she attended the NLD party congress, but the military government continued to harass both her and her party. In 1998 she announced the formation of a representative committee that she declared was the country’s legitimate ruling parliament. Michael Aris died in London in early 1999. Prior to his death, the military junta denied him a visa to visit Suu Kyi in Myanmar, and Suu Kyi, anticipating that she would not be allowed to reenter the country if she left, remained in Myanmar.
The junta once again placed Suu Kyi under house arrest from September 2000 to May 2002, ostensibly for having violated restrictions by attempting to travel outside Yangon. Following clashes between the NLD and pro-government demonstrators in 2003, the government returned her to house arrest. Calls for her release continued throughout the international community in the face of her sentence’s annual renewal, and in 2009 a United Nations body declared her detention illegal under Myanmar’s own law. In 2008 the conditions of her house arrest were somewhat loosened, allowing her to receive some magazines as well as letters from her children, who were both living abroad.
In May 2009, shortly before her most recent sentence was to be completed, Suu Kyi was arrested and charged with having breached the terms of her house arrest after an intruder (a U.S. citizen) entered her house compound and spent two nights there. In August she was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, though the sentence immediately was reduced to 18 months, and she was allowed to serve it while remaining under house arrest. At the time of her conviction, the belief was widespread both within and outside Myanmar that this latest ruling was designed to prevent Suu Kyi from participating in multiparty parliamentary elections (the first since 1990) scheduled for 2010.
That suspicion became reality through a series of new election laws enacted in March 2010: one prohibited individuals from any participation in elections if they had been convicted of a crime (as she had been in 2009), and another disqualified anyone who was (or had been) married to a foreign national from running for office. In support of Suu Kyi, the NLD refused to reregister under those new laws (as was required) and was disbanded. The government parties faced little opposition in the November 7, 2010, election and easily won an overwhelming majority of legislative seats amid widespread allegations of voter fraud. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest six days after the election and vowed to continue her opposition to military rule.
Government restrictions on Suu Kyi’s activities were further relaxed during 2011. She was allowed to meet freely with associates and others in Yangon and by midyear was able to travel outside the city. In August she met in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw (Naypyidaw), with Thein Sein, who had become the civilian president of Myanmar in March. Other high-profile meetings followed later in the year, including those with Thailand’s new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in October and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December. Meanwhile, rules on political participation were eased, and, in advance of parliamentary by-elections scheduled for April 2012, the NLD was officially reinstated. In January 2012 Suu Kyi announced that she was seeking election to a constituency in Yangon, and her bid to run for office was approved by the government in February. She easily won her seat in the April 1 elections and was sworn into office on May 2.
In late May and early June 2012 Suu Kyi visited Thailand, her first trip outside Myanmar since 1988. Later in June she traveled to Europe, making stopovers in several countries. Highlights of that journey included giving the acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway, and being invited to address the British Parliament in London.
Suu Kyi maintained a high international profile—including a visit to China in mid-2015—as she worked toward greater political liberalization in Myanmar. Although some progress was achieved, no changes were made to the constitutional provision banning a candidate from running for the presidency whose spouse or children are foreign nationals. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi and the NLD campaigned vigorously for what turned out to be the country’s first openly contested parliamentary election. The polling, held in early November 2015, produced a major victory for the NLD, which was able to secure large-enough majorities of seats in both legislative chambers to allow the party to form the next national government. As Suu Kyi was not able to stand for the presidency, the NLD selected her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, as the party’s candidate, though Suu Kyi clearly indicated her intent to rule the country by proxy. On March 15, 2016, legislative members elected Htin Kyaw to serve as the country’s new president He was inaugurated on March 30.
Suu Kyi initially held four ministerial posts in the new government—minister of energy, minister of education, foreign minister, and minister in the president’s office—but within a week had given up the first two positions. She was then named state counselor, a position newly created by the legislature and signed into law by Htin Kyaw; the post was similar to that of prime minister and potentially more powerful than the president. The creation of the state counselor role for Suu Kyi rankled the military, whose legislative members denounced the bill that provided for the new position as being unconstitutional and refused to take part in the vote on the bill.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s published works include Freedom from Fear, and Other Writings, 2nd ed. (1995; reissued 2010), and Letters from Burma (1997; reissued 2010).