Rohingya crisis: The divisive leadership of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi


The woman once lionised for her commitment to human rights has reportedly said violence against the Rohingya is "made-up". How did she get here?

Destined for leadership

Aung San Suu Kyi seemed destined to play an important role in the history of Myanmar (known internally as Burma until the military changed its name in 1989).

She is the daughter of well-known liberation movement leader Aung San - who is considered the leading architect of Burma's independence from British rule.

After studying and working abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi returned home to an independent, although military-ruled Burma where she spearheaded the National League for Democracy (NLD) and was elected secretary general of the party.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a crowd in 2002.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a crowd in 2002.

She earned global respect for her patience and stoicism as she campaigned for military leaders to hand the government over to civilians.

Despite a clear victory for her party in elections held in 1990, army generals blocked the government and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under strict house arrest on and off for 15 years over the two decades leading up to her final release in 2010.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, her standing was so high in the international community that CNN called her "the Nelson Mandela of Myanmar".

Political victory

In 2014, Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from running for president because her two sons held British passports in a move widely seen as a political tactic by the military-backed government.

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech in 2015.
Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech in 2015.

Soon after, then-President Thein Sein announced an election would be held. Her party, the NLD, secured an overwhelming victory on November 13, 2015.

The NLD's Htin Kyaw became the country's first civilian president and the position of state counsellor, a de facto leader role was created for Aung San Suu Kyi.

But her mission to bring peace to the divided nation has been troubled. Myanmar remains marked by poverty, ethnic conflict, religious conflict and stalled economic development.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority, are seen as illegal immigrants by the government in a country with a 90 per cent Buddhist population.

Since the military-drafted 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya are not officially recognised by Myanmar authorities; and the stateless people have faced military crackdowns since the mid-1970s.

Fresh clashes between the Myanmar army and Rohingya insurgents in August 2017 resulted in a particularly large-scale military crackdown in the country's Rakhine State.

Rohingya cross from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017.
Rohingya cross from Myanmar to Bangladesh in 2017.

Human Rights Watch claims the atrocities committed by the Myanmar military during the operation "include mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount(ing) to crimes against humanity".

"Military and civilian officials have repeatedly denied that security forces committed abuses during the operations, claims which are contradicted by extensive evidence and witness accounts," the group says.

As a result, some 700,000 Rohingya have since been driven into Bangladesh

The International Crisis Group has called this "one of the fastest refugee exoduses in modern times".

Accountability for abuses

The military remains wholly independent of the civilian government in Myanmar and retains considerable political and economic power.

As such, Aung San Suu Kyi's ability to reign in the military remains limited. But she has come under intense criticism for her failure to properly condemn the treatment of the Rohingya.

"It's important to remember that it's the military and its officers that have the constitutional authority over the military operations and so bear the prime responsibility for the abuses against the Rohingya," Director of Human Rights Watch Australia Elaine Pearson told SBS News.

"(But) Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader and as such she has an important role to play in ensuring accountability for abuses."

It was a point echoed by Amnesty International Australia's Crisis Campaigns Coordinator Diana Sayed.

"The civilian arm of the government – de facto led by Aung San Suu Kyi – still has... the power to address many violations we have documented, and crucially, to speak out against racism, discrimination, violence and intolerance."

International backlash 

Since late 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced considerable international criticism for failing to speak out against the military action in Rakhine State.

In the fallout of the August 2017 military operation, an online petition on garnered more than 440,000 e-signatures calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked.

And a chorus of Nobel laureates have slammed their fellow winner. 

The youngest ever Nobel laureate, Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai said "the world is waiting" to hear Aung San Suu Kyi condemn the oppression of the Rohingya.

While in an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, South African activist Desmond Tutu said "the images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread".

"As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people."

In January, US diplomat Bill Richardson resigned from an Aung San Suu Kyi-appointed panel set up to ease tensions with the Rohingya, assailing her for an "absence of moral leadership".

Demonstrations against Aung San Suu Kyi.
Demonstrations against Aung San Suu Kyi.

Institutions have also followed suit. In March, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum said it was stripping her of the prestigious Elie Wiesel human rights award.

The museum said it was rescinding the award due to her inaction over what it called "mounting evidence of genocide" committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya.

While in Australia for the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reportedly encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi to reach a resolution for the resettlement of displaced people.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House.
Aung San Suu Kyi and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House.

And on April 30, Aung San Suu Kyi received a UN Security Council delegation in the highest-level diplomatic visit since the start of the Rohingya crisis.

Britain's UN ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters after the event "in order to have accountability there must be a proper investigation".

But Yangon-based independent analyst David Mathieson described the visit as "symbolically quite important" but doused hopes of any immediate diplomatic breakthrough. 

He said Myanmar was grudgingly showing "some semblance of cooperation with the West" to "avert further pressure from international justice initiatives".

Does Aung San Suu Kyi have "room to manoeuver"?

Sydney University Professor Dr Jonathan Bogais, a Myanmar specialist, told SBS News that the international community had so far been misguided in the way it was pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi.

Dr Bogais said that speaking out against the oppression of the Rohingya people would risk "inflaming" the majority of her supporters.

"In the state of Rakhine there is a very strong nationalist movement that does not want any negotiation with the Rohingya. Had Aung San Suu Kyi tried to address the issue it would have meant that she would have alienated a very significant part of her own electorate because they are all Buddhist."

A protest against Aung San Suu Kyi in Sydney during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.
A protest against Aung San Suu Kyi in Sydney during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.

"If she were to make a stand to protect the Rohingya she will lose credibility with many Buddhists in Myanmar. That will undermine her position. One must also remember in the complex situation, that the military is always behind (her). She does not have a great deal of room to manoeuver."

"I'm not saying that what Aung San Suu Kyi is doing is right, and she could probably do much better, but we need to look at it not from an Australian or a French or a British perspective, we need to look at it from a Myanmar perspective."

"Made-up stories"

But some continue to question Aung San Suu Kyi's true political intentions regarding the Rohingya and her relationship with the military.

The United Nations investigator of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee has accused the state counsellor of "complicity" in the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims.

"She was never a goddess of democracy and human rights... She was a politician and is still a politician," Ms Lee said in February.

And in a PBS report, Ms Lee said she was shocked after directly confronting Aung San Suu Kyi last year with accounts of Rohingya being killed in Myanmar. 

"(Aung San Suu Kyi) was becoming very, very defensive and she was saying these were all made-up stories."

"(Aung San Suu Kyi said) the 'UN is so one-sided, they are not helping the situation'."

"She looked at me and she said, 'if you continue the narrative of the UN, you know, you might not get that access' (to Rakhine State) … I couldn’t believe my ears and I thought, 'she must be kidding me'."

While the world wrestles how best to best deal with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military, the future of the 700,000 Rohingya stranded in Bangladesh looks increasingly uncertain.

WATCH: Dateline's Myanmar's Killing Fields. 

- Additional reporting: AFP, AAP

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