Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

An infamous fall from grace: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya
5 min read
28 Sep, 2018
Comment: Once the face of democracy in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi now heads a repressive and violent regime, writes Malia Bouattia.
The ICC has opened a probe into atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar [Getty]
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar (Burma), which was founded by current State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Party formed following the protests led by students in Yangon on 8 August, 1988 in opposition to the totalitarian military regime, which ruled over the people of Myanmar.

The 1988 movement, which included a general strike, was not restricted to students but also made up of workers and different ethnic and religious groups across society, who all rose up against their conditions. Clashes with the government killed an estimated 10,000, and the 8888 uprising (as it came to be known) was the political catalyst for the formation of the NLD.

Suu Kyi became a crucial force within it and an inspiration to the efforts of her comrades.

Her legacy was also tied to that of her father Aung San, who is described as the 'father of the nation' because of the role he played in the independence of Burma in the late 1940s and the establishment of the military's power in Burmese society.

Suu Kyi, his daughter, became seen as an important figure in the struggle for democracy on this basis, as she was able to appeal to the romanticised nationalist history of the country while simultaneously pushing for reform.

She was placed under house arrest after her electoral success in 1990, when the NLD won an overwhelming 81 percent of seats in parliament. The military refused to recognise the result, and eventually even declared the NLD party illegal.

During her 15 years of imprisonment, Suu Kyi became a symbol of democracy

During her 15 years of imprisonment, Suu Kyi became a symbol of democracy internationally, and an empowering figure for the continued struggle of the people of Myanmar.

She received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, despite being unable to either collect it or deliver her acceptance speech.The historical significance of the NLD is even told through its emblem, which includes a fighting peacock (the animal has served as a nationalist symbol in Myanmar) that depicts the struggle against the military dictatorship, as well as a white star, representing the revolution that took place.

Today, though, few among the international community are likely to be celebrating the anniversary of the Party's foundation, and even fewer are likely to continue speaking positively of Suu Kyi. This is not a case of collective amnesia, rather the result of her actions - alongside those of the Myanmar military who have been committing acts likened to genocide - in their violent persecution of the Rohingya people.

This population has also been denied access to their political and civil rights since the first Myanmar government's establishment in 1962.

Following her release from house arrest in 2010, after years of international and local campaigns put pressure on the regime, the NLD was re-registered as a political party, and she subsequently rose rapidly to electoral success once again in the years that followed.

The people of Myanmar, as well as observers around the world, expected a radical change in the status quo. Over time, her leadership was instead marked by the reversal of the timid first steps towards democratisation in Myanmar, and her eventual re-alignment with the interests of the military. Nowhere has this shift been as marked as in her defence of the military's actions against the Rohingya.

The UN has recently released a report of over 400 pages on the treatment of this minority group in Myanmar, which includes accounts of rape, murder and the stifling of basic rights.

"The situation seems a
textbook example of ethnic cleansing", UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and this, despite the fact that during their investigations, the UN's access to the country was restricted by the Myanmar government. Many were left wondering how much worse the reality is for the Rohingya.

The internal investigation by the Myanmar military over the treatment of the Rohingya, cleared the authorities of any wrongdoing late last year. This is despite around 700,000 being displaced to Bangladesh in their escape from violence and death.

Last week the International Criminal Court has opened a probe into the atrocities, which could be treated as crimes against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute.

It is impossible to mask the violations of the Suu Kyi government

It is impossible to mask the violations of the Suu Kyi government, which alongside persecuting the Rohingya people, continues to stifle freedom of speech and of the press.

Indeed,
Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were sentenced to seven years of imprisonment over their reporting of the Rohingya's suffering. The UN rights office highlighted "the instrumentalisation of the law and of the courts by the government and military in what constitutes a political campaign against independent journalism".

In all these cases, once considered one of the most influential and inspirational women in the world, with institutions like the UN calling for her release during her fight for her own – and the country's liberation - Aung San Suu Kyi is now being reported on by the same bodies as having "contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes" through her omission, inaction and even justifications for the actions of the military.

What held all the signs of a possible transition to de-militarisation and democratisation, has turned out to be a move sideways, from one face of a repressive and violent regime to another.


Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.