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Aung San Suu Kyi

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The New York Times is correct. Aung San Suu Kyi has completely failed as a leader to do anything or even speak up about the oppression of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

There is no question that Rakhine State, one of the poorest in Myanmar, is a complex tinderbox of sectarian resentments that requires the most cautious of political approaches. But these simply cannot be based on a perpetuation of the systematic persecution and marginalization of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s social and political life. They certainly cannot be based on denying the Rohingya even their name.

In the end, the reason Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t want the Americans to say “Rohingya” doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a woman whose name has been synonymous with human rights for a generation, a woman who showed unflinching courage in the face of despotism, has continued an utterly unacceptable policy of the military rulers she succeeded.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would be wise to reconsider her stance immediately. Her halo has been a central factor in Myanmar’s reacceptance into the world community after decades of ostracism, but already there are calls by human rights groups in the United States for President Obama to renew sanctions against the country before they expire on May 20.

This isn’t some new failure either. But isn’t there an object lesson here about how western liberals see overseas dissenters? Aung San Suu Kyi did an outstanding job not only presenting herself as a martyr to a diabolical military dictatorship, which she certainly was, but as a symbol of international human and political rights. But the last part of that can get really problematic when such a leader actually takes power and either feels the need to compromise on the rights of others for pragmatic reasons or actually does not believe that minorities should be equal in her nation. As the Times says, it doesn’t really matter because she’s failing here. On the other hand, western liberals creating images of dissidents as saints should also be avoided. These people are humans, not symbols, and they have human frailties that may include nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism. That’s as true of Aung San Suu Kyi as anyone else.

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  • J. Otto Pohl

    She isn’t the first one either. Natan Sharansky was an actual legitimate dissident in the USSR before emigrating to Israel. The fact is there is nothing contradictory in many people’s thinking in supporting human rights for their group and denying them to other groups.

    • The fact is there is nothing contradictory in many people’s thinking in supporting human rights for their group and denying them to other groups.

      Makes perfect sense: their group is human, right?

  • Warren Terra

    It’s my understanding that she has a long history of being unsympathetic to separatist minority nationalities within Burma/Myanmar. Being the daughter of a national/nationalist icon seems relevant.

    • Anna in PDX

      Her government has allowed a lot of freedom of expression of many ethnic groups that are not the Rohingya. And her behavior when she was confronted by a Muslim interviewer on TV makes me think her issue is more about Islamophobia than it is general xenophobia.

  • AMK

    Another case of “every foreigner who lip syncs the word ‘democracy’ must be Thomas Jefferson reincarnated” floundering on reality reef. Disempowered ethno-nationalists learned to couch their English press statements in human rights drag a long time ago. And if the roles were reversed here, the Rohingya would be brutally supressing the ethnic Burmese.

    The Burmese want closer ties with us because they hate and fear China. We should welcome that because we don’t trust China either, but lets not fool ourselves into making more of it than it is.

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

      Of course, Jefferson owned slaves so even Jefferson isn’t “Jefferson”, the Founding Father whose wisdom we should all worship.

  • Juicy_Joel

    Isn’t the uncritical usage of “Myanmar” a tacit sign of support of the type policies the NYT article (and this post) denounce?

    • Porkman

      Myanmar is actually the more inclusive term.

      “Burma” comes from “Bama” or the majority ethnic group within Myanmar. It’s like calling India “Hindustan” (which they do in Hindi, which is problematic).

      Politically, there are problems since the regime that changed the name is bad, but it’s a much more inclusive name.

  • anonymous

    While I sympathize with the plight of the Rohingya, it’s complicated by the perception, if not the reality, that some are actually illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or descendants of recent (within a few generations) illegal immigrants.

    That doesn’t mean illegal immigrants deserve horrific treatment either. But this perception, factual or not, is a factor.

    • Matt

      or descendants of recent (within a few generations) illegal immigrants.

      Even if completely true, it wouldn’t be a reason to treat them as they are treated. We all, after all, just find ourselves born in a particular country, with no choice as to who our parents are, and for this to be a reason to be denied basic rights is, at least, pretty implausible.

      • Porkman

        Hi, have you met Asian ethnonationalism?

        Let me introduce you…

    • djw

      This is pretty standard for lowland majority nationalist/ethnic groups in SE Asia, with respect to various minorities. The Vietnamese, for example, often view various hill tribes as interlopers of Chinese origin, etc.

  • mikeSchilling

    But the Green Revolution in Iran would totally have overthrown the mullahs and installed a secular liberal democracy.

  • LosGatosCA

    See also Lech Walesa, well documented anti-gay and unreconstructed anti-Semite IIRC. Even when Poland was down to less than 5000 Jews, because, you know, a prior regime had been a bit anti-Semitic as well.

  • Porkman

    What makes Burma hard is what happened during WW2.

    When the Japanese invaded, Aung San (Aung San Su Ki’s father) led the Burmese independence Army, which was allied with Japan and fought the British.

    In the Burma campaign, the Allies started arming and organizing the various ethnic groups that lived on Burma’s periphery. The Kachins, the Shans, the Rakhines… etc. When Burma was reconquered, Aung San switched sides, but the British authorities weren’t inclined to trust him nor were they particularly interested in telling the loyal ethnic armies to disarm.

    Unlike India, where the British central state was intact when it was handed over to the newly independent country, the Burmese state was cobbled together after victory and had the stain of being coopted by the Japanese. It was very weak compared to the peripheral forces.

    Nevertheless, Aung San did have the street cred to unite the country and got a provisional buy in at the Panglong conference from most of the armed ethnic groups and he won an election in 1947. Then he was assassinated.

    The armed ethnic groups then rebelled against the central government and the central government has been waging a war of the Bama majority against the various minorities for the past 60 years. It’s gradually defeated or bought off each individual minority group, but the Aung San Su Ki was always a candidate of the Bama majority.

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