The Nobel Prize winner — and prospective presidential candidate — is seen around the world as a beacon of hope for Burma, but the Rohingya crisis has cast a dark shadow over her democratic credentials. As thousands of Rohingya flee to Burma’s democratic neighbors — Indonesia, Malaysia, and even earthquake-ravaged Nepal — the international community cannot ignore their persecution. They have suffered violent pogroms from Buddhist extremists. Their many successfully-run businesses have been burned. The government has barricaded them into concentration camps, where they are in dire need of food, water, and medical help. Aid groups that have been trying to help them face being banned from the country. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to this — the greatest human rights issue facing her country — is shocking.
In 2012, she said she “didn’t know” if the Rohingya could be citizens. In doing so she aligned herself with the government’s official policy that the Rohingya don’t exist. In fact, Burmese officials threatened to boycott the recent regional conference to address the migrant crisis if the other participants so much as used the word “Rohingya.” This is in spite of the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Burma for centuries — some scholars say they are indigenous people of the Rakhine state.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s more recent comments are no redeemer: “If I speak up for human rights, [the Rohingya] will only suffer. There will be more blood.” Why the evasiveness? Aung San Suu Kyi is courting the country’s Buddhist majority, among whom hatred for the Rohingya is rampant.
The real lesson here for western readers is that heroes don’t exist and that the entire idea of heroism should be eliminated. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be disappointed in her–we obviously should be sad that she is so indifferent to human rights violations against a minority–but it does mean that people exist in their place and time, have prejudices, and generally are flawed human beings. That Aung San Suu Kyi bravely stood up to the Myanmar military regime for so long in no way automatically means we should expect she cares about the rights of minorities, as we are discovering. The more interesting question is what it says about us that we would expect to her to hold our positions on this matter? Western liberals found her a useful way to project their values on idealized figure from the developing world, something far easier to do when the subject is under long-term house arrest by an awful regime. But that she would be more than willing to sacrifice minorities to win support from the majority population, is this surprising at all?
This doesn’t excuse her lack of interest in minority rights. I just don’t think it’s remotely surprising.