In March of 2014 I spent three weeks in Myanmar. What I saw there, travelling around some of the biggest cities and staying with families in rural areas, was an adoration for the woman they refer to as just ‘the Lady’. Portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi hung behind tills in busy city shops and in bare rural households as if she were a deity, decorated with flowers and candles. I bought a t-shirt with the flag of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, across the chest. It was a small show of support for the fight for democracy in Myanmar, a fight that has been lead all the way by Suu Kyi. Her story is undoubtedly a remarkable one, but the Lady herself has come under criticism the past few years which has heated up in the last couple of months over her action, or lack thereof, towards the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.
Her father was Aung San, the man who is considered father of modern Myanmar as he was responsible for negotiating independence from British rule. However, she claims she has no true memory of him as he was assassinated just six months after negotiating independence in 1947, when his daughter was just two years old.
Aung San Suu Kyi left Myanmar in 1960 with her mother, who had been appointed ambassador to India. She would then move to the UK, where she was educated with a PPE degree at Oxford, and where she met her future husband. Married in 1972, the night before her wedding she said to her partner that if ever her country needed her, she would have to return. Her country always came first. The call came for her to return to her home nation in 1988 when her mother fell ill, but it was her nation’s plight that kept Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar.
1988 saw a great uprising of the Burmese people, protesting the failure of the disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism and the conditions under a one-party state that were responsible for the economic isolation, impoverishment and a collapse of democracy that began in 1962. Aung San Suu Kyi gave her first public speech in front of 500,000 protestors at Shwedagon Pagoda at the protests. This demonstration, and this speech, saw the formation of the pro-democracy NLD, and under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership forced and won democratic elections in 1990. These results were, however, ignored by the ruling military junta.
Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in that year for being someone “likely to undermine the community peace and stability” of Myanmar. She had permission to leave Burma on the condition that she never return. She refused, and didn’t see her family as a result. House arrest made Aung San Suu Kyi a household name in national and international politics. The Burmese people granted her great respect for her show of solidarity with others who had been imprisoned for pro-democracy action and in 1990 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her house arrest officially came to an end in 2010 where her fight for democracy continued. Since then she joined parliament as leader of the NLD in 2012 and became leader of the opposition. In 2015 the NLD won a landslide victory. However, barred from the official Presidency by the Burmese constitution (she is the mother of foreign-born children, an addition that looks to have been specifically added to stop her from getting power), she occupied other ministerial positions before entering into the newly formed office of State Counsellor in 2016. The role is similar to that of Prime Minister. She now holds this office along with her role as foreign minister.
As de facto leader of Myanmar, her story is far from over, but has taken a dark turn. Her leading role in the fight for democracy is becoming something less admirable. In the Rakhine state in Myanmar in October 2016 there began a series of clashes between the Rohingya Muslim minority and government forces. What has transpired since has been a number of sectarian attacks by Myanmar’s military and Buddhist population against Rohingya civilians, that have recently been described as genocide by the United Nation’s human rights chief. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on this front has been widely condemned and her Freedom of Oxford award has been revoked in response to her role in the persecution of the Muslim minority. Obama’s ambassador to the UN human rights council has said that although she may have reaped the benefits of being a pro-democracy and human rights icon for Myanmar, she has not been willing to show the courage necessary to defend the unpopular Muslim minority group.
On Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme in 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi comes across with the assuredness, calmness and determination of someone who has been through so much but still has a long way to go. Often compared to Nelson Mandela, she sounds more like Margaret Thatcher as she talks of personal details and political goals. A tone of voice that is unwavering and un-bowing, even when the presenter brings up criticisms of her support for the military despite its chequered past – “I have always thought of it as my Father’s army”. It is this rhetoric that made some activists sceptical of her character before the recent Rohingya persecution. She has been criticised for being just another politician, one pursuing her father’s vision for the country rather than being the more liberating, purely pro-democracy and pro-human rights figure that she cut at the turn of the century.
No one can refute the role in the positive change towards democracy that Aung San Suu Kyi forged from 1988 onwards, and the great sacrifices that she has made towards that end. However, she risks undoing some of her own brilliant work and tainting her reputation as a revolutionary and inspiring leader for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. She is running out of time to fix this.
Unfortunately, my NLD t-shirt will be staying in the cupboard for now, until she chooses to continue in the vein under which she became a household name – as a strong and consistent voice against all forms of oppression.