Bishop Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai, Justin Trudeau and many others are pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi over her response to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
More than 400,000 signed a Change.org petition to take back Suu Kyi’s 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and 20,000 want her honorary Canadian citizenship revoked.
Do they understand Myanmar’s politics and history of ethnic violence better than her? Of course not, and they should stop smearing a woman who, like millions of minorities, faces persecution from Myanmar’s generals.
Instead of placating foreigners, Suu Kyi was elected to serve constituents who post videos online accusing Rohingya Muslims of taking scarce land and resources from Buddhists, beheading monks, raping women and sparking clashes with victims on all sides.
Suu Kyi said on Facebook that her government was “defending all the people in Rakhine in the best way possible”. She decried those who spread “fake information” to promote “the interests of terrorists” such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, blamed for killing police and border officials last month.
She’s also dealing with a military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who vowed to never let “Bengali terrorists” repeat 1940s atrocities in Rakhine.
Suu Kyi doesn’t have the powers enjoyed by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accuses Myanmar of “genocide”, or of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who praised Cuba’s repressive late dictator Fidel Castro.
The constitution bars Suu Kyi, winner of the 1990 and 2015 elections, from the presidency because she married a British citizen. She can’t amend it because the army has a de facto veto in the assembly and controls police, borders and most bureaucrats.
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, warns that Suu Kyi is “walking a tightrope” and “dark forces are clamouring for a return to army rule”.
“Stigmatising Aung San Suu Kyi and attacking her through the media is not a long-term solution,” he said. “A false step will see her out of government and that would be the end of any dream of democracy. We should always remember the army took back democracy
Suu Kyi isn’t the worst player in this crisis. Bangladesh, historic origin of the Rohingya, has threatened to ship refugees to a flood-prone island notorious for pirates. Indonesia, a majority Muslim nation, doesn’t want 400,000 Rohingya. Thailand and Malaysia haven’t done enough about smugglers accused of rape, murder and extortion.
Al-Qaeda’s call on Islamic radicals across Asia to infiltrate and punish Myanmar underscores Buddhist concerns about Islamic extremism. Can we really expect Suu Kyi, who spent most of the 1990s under house arrest for marrying a foreigner, to sympathise with chauvinists who forbid women to pray in mosques or marry non-Muslims?
Avowed feminist Trudeau hasn’t condemned Islamic fascists in Myanmar or sanctioned Canadian miners doing business with corrupt generals.
Thus, many in Myanmar see hypocrisy in outsiders who called the attractive younger Suu Kyi an “Angel of Democracy” in the 1990s, when it was fashionable to glorify repressed Buddhist women, but now scorn the 72-year-old matron when the media portrays Muslims as the leading victims.
After decades of war, Suu Kyi can’t turn Myanmar overnight into a Trudeau-style “post-nation” where everyone is a rainbow. Myanmar faces bigger challenges than Obama-era identity politics. Millions in Myanmar lack proper roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, water and sanitation. Thus, when asked about Rohingya, Suu Kyi emphasises government efforts to improve living conditions for everyone.
For positive change, activists are better dealing with Suu Kyi than a military junta without her. It’s possible to condemn or sanction Myanmar’s military, and defend rights of the Rohingya and other minorities, without ruining the legacy of Asia’s most heroic woman. Silent or complicit, she’s still the best option.
Christopher Johnson is the author of Siamese Dreams and Freedom’s Rainbow