Thinking back, it was like a celebration. There was music, dancing, camaraderie, cheering. I stood in front of the headquarters of the National League for Democracy in Yangon and felt like I was witnessing history. The crowd burst into applause when each electoral race was called in favor of the party. Myanmar’s long struggle with military rule seemed over. Now, almost two years later, as I stood in front of City Hall in mid-September, that election euphoria felt like it was in the distant past, or maybe that it had happened in a different country.
People were still wearing the same colors: red shirts, red hats. But the message was new, and different. It was written on the signs. One banner stood out. “We will stand by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We will stand by our government. We will stand by our army.” The sudden unity of the previously discordant strands of Myanmar history was disorienting, but so was the Wizard of Oz–like screen posted atop City Hall and the hush that fell over the crowd as everyone looked up to watch the live video being beamed from a cavernous room in the distant capital, Naypyidaw. We have the honor to invite the Honorable State Counselor to deliver her speech, the announcer intoned. Suu Kyi took the stage. Red balloons ascended into the sky. Cheers rang out, but there was nothing to celebrate.
No leader in modern history has had a more precipitous fall from grace than Aung San Suu Kyi. Once hailed, now reviled. Awards given, now revoked. In some quarters, her name ignites revulsion. Lumping Suu Kyi together with Trump and Putin, the Irish musician and philanthropist Bob Geldof called her a great ethnic cleanser. Students at St. Hugh’s College, her alma mater at Oxford University, voted to take her portrait down from a hall, and then, as if the wound had not been treated properly, removed her name from its common room. The Oxford City Council revoked its Freedom of the City award. Fellow Nobel laureates have made public entreaties. In a departure from historical trends, the condemnation is not for what she has done or said but for what she has not done and not said.
Since 2012, when Suu Kyi won her first parliamentary seat, her reluctance to speak up about anti-Muslim bias and violence in her country has stunned former supporters. Most of this violence has been directed at the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority in Rakhine State that the government does not recognize and consistently refers to as “Bengali,” implying (falsely) that the group’s origins are in Bangladesh. Suu Kyi spent a combined 15 years under house arrest for her prodemocracy ideas. She survived a massacre of supporters in 2003. The likelihood that she would not be allowed to return to Myanmar kept her from seeing her dying husband or attending his funeral in England and she appears to have little meaningful relationship with her two sons. Her sacrifices are evident and moving, which is why her inability to ally herself with the suffering of the Rohingya is all the more frustrating and damning, as though it tells us there are limits to what she will stand up for. Many of her supporters abroad found themselves wrestling with the question whether to believe there was light at the end of the tunnel or whether the tunnel simply led nowhere. They wanted to hold on to the heroic figure who had, without their noticing, slipped out of their orbit and defied their imaginations. Like most of us, they wanted to believe in something, someone. Some still can’t let go.
Her political rise also parallels, almost exactly, Myanmar’s increasing violence against the Rohingya. In 2012—the same year in which she obtained a seat in parliament—intercommunal violence erupted in Rakhine State, which stretches down the western half of the country and meets the Bay of Bengal. More than 140,000 Rohingya were herded into camps outside Sittwe, the state capital. Riots affecting Muslim communities in other parts of the country followed in 2013 and 2014. Before the 2015 election, which was trumpeted as the dawn of a new era, the dawn of a new nightmare emerged for the Rohingya, whose essential identification papers were confiscated. Throughout this time, Suu Kyi said and did little of substance to push back against the slow erosion of human rights. This had actually started in the 1960s with the onset of military rule, but it then accelerated, ironically enough, in 2012, during a period that was supposed to usher in “reform.”
As the outlook for Myanmar improved, that for the Rohingya worsened, and deprivation helped trigger the creation of a new Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which attacked police posts in 2016 and 2017. The attacks in turn prompted military responses that have pushed nearly 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, where they join hundreds of thousands who have fled Myanmar since at least the 1970s. They may soon constitute the largest refugee camp in the world.
Suu Kyi’s speech that September morning, the one sent to the screen in front of City Hall, was meant to address the latest crisis for the first time, even though weeks had passed since its onset. But once again she confounded those hoping she would either come out forcefully against the military (with whom her party awkwardly continues to share power, despite the election) or express explicit moral support for the Rohingya, whose name she did not mention except in reference to the insurgent group. It is becoming increasingly clear that she is not going to address the Rohingya’s plight with a dramatic gesture of conscience, now or in the future. Just as analysts once tried to understand what Myanmar’s generals were up to, a new genre of Kremlinology has emerged to try to explain why Suu Kyi is the way she is.
She’s the ultimate pragmatist, some say, and will do anything to keep the military from coming back to power by tolerating its overreach and abuses. She doesn’t like Muslims, argue others, and is something of a secret bigot who is simply a representative of the dominant Bamar ethnicity. Historically minded thinkers point to a connection between her and her father. Or maybe she’s changed and has let power lead her down the path to authoritarianism. Or she was always authoritarian and is now simply showing her true colors. In fact, supporters counter, this is all part of some secret genius plan that she has worked out well in advance. Each case has its merits and its flaws. So here they are: five incomplete readings of Aung San Suu Kyi.
This is the most widely accepted interpretation, because it is the most comfortable one. If we buy into it, we still get to admire Suu Kyi, while shaking our heads at the impossible situation she is in. On paper, this theory makes a lot of sense. The 2008 constitution prevents her from becoming president while it gives the military 25 percent of parliamentary seats (they are appointed by their own command, not voted in); the leverage to veto constitutional amendments; control over defense and the police; and jurisdiction over matters of local administration. The National League for Democracy is left with power to pass legislation and work on the economy but little else. As Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and longtime Myanmar observer, noted in the Asia Times, NLD ministers are little more than “nominal heads of their respective government departments; the underlying bureaucracy is still pop-ulated by military-appointed officials who dutifully served the previous rights-abusing, authoritarian regimes.” In other words, there has been little actual transfer of power to civilian-controlled institutions.
Take a look at what happened to Phyo Min Thein, the chief minster of Yangon and one of the more powerful members of Suu Kyi’s government. A former political prisoner, he had the temerity in July 2017 to state the simple fact that the state of civil-military power sharing was “not a democracy.” He was forced to issue an apology. NLD officials point to this and other overreactions to describe the dynamic that was at play from the very beginning of the election victory, when Suu Kyi did not show up at party headquarters and held no public celebrations, instructing her victorious MPs not to gloat.
“We are a bit cautious,” Kyaw Thu, a 53-year-old activist, told me the day after the election in Yangon. The military ignored election results in 1990, so there was a precedent. By focusing on “national reconciliation,” the new civilian government could press on under the pretense that they were all in it together.
But this theory fails to explain why Suu Kyi has failed—indeed, refused—to make even the smallest of gestures toward the Rohingya. As Lintner points out, she could take any number of steps that would not necessarily antagonize the army. Though she eventually visited northern Rakhine State in November, marking her first trip there since having free access to travel after 2012, it was a short visit during which she came across as insensitive and out of touch. Most pragmatists aren’t this careful, or this aloof.
In late 2016, the New Republic published an article about Aung San Suu Kyi’s pitiful response to the crackdown in Rakhine State after the first attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, with the headline, “Is this the Real Aung San Suu Kyi?” The piece was one of several attempts by journalists, mostly dating to the post-2012 violence in Rakhine State, to probe Suu Kyi’s “real” feelings about the Rohingya and Muslims in general. (A large portion of the country’s Muslim population is not Rohingya and does not live in Rakhine State.) At first glance there may be something to this. In The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom, a 2016 book by Irish journalist Peter Popham, the author recounts a testy 2013 interview with Suu Kyi that was held by presenter Mishal Husain for BBC’s Today program. Citing a “reliable source,” Popham says that Suu Kyi muttered, after the interview, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.” In a more recent version of these probes, published this year in the Wall Street Journal, Suu Kyi allegedly told a diplomat how Muslims had come to dominate Buddhists in Indonesia, and spoke of the Rohingya being non-native to Myanmar, echoing the views of Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
Suu Kyi has failed—indeed, refused—to make even the smallest gestures toward the Rohingya.
Her defenders may point to the fact that stories like these are often second- or even thirdhand. And the stories can come off sounding like that famous definition of gossip: “hearing something you like about someone you don’t.” In a less-cited part of that same 2013 BBC interview, Suu Kyi gave what could be considered an explanation for why anti-Muslim sentiment exists, while not agreeing with it herself. “You, I think, will accept that there is a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great, and certainly that is the perception in many parts of the world and in our country too. So this is fear—” Here Husain interrupted, asking her to explain why she was talking about fear on both sides when the Rohingya have borne the brunt of the conflict.
Many Buddhists in Myanmar do have irrational fears about Muslims taking over. This fact doesn’t make such fears acceptable, but it does help us understand the roots of prejudice. Under military rule in Myanmar, these prejudices—which stretch back to colonial times—were both bottled up and accentuated. Suu Kyi said in the BBC interview, “I think if you live under a dictatorship for many years, people don’t learn to trust one another, a dictatorship generates a climate of distrust and suspicion.” Myanmar is nearly 90 percent Buddhist, and Suu Kyi may have to pick her words carefully when it comes to shoring up support from this electorate.
But once again she went too far in the other direction. Before the election in 2015 the NLD did not field a single Muslim candidate. Would doing so really have risked the wrath of a nation in awe of her? In January 2017, the Muslim lawyer and NLD legal adviser U Ko Ni was assassinated in broad daylight at the Yangon airport, in a plot carried out by ex-military men. Although Suu Kyi did eventually speak at an event honoring his life (as well as that of a taxi driver who was also killed by the shooter), it took her weeks to do so. Ko Ni was a trusted adviser, and there is still debate about whether the motive for his murder was religious, or related to his efforts to amend the constitution, or both. As usual, the lack of response on Suu Kyi’s part created a vacuum that would be filled by the explanations of others.
At the heart of anti-Muslim sentiments among Buddhists is an age-old contention that Islam has long spelled doom for the Sangha. The argument has modern and ancient points of departure. Its current proponents point to Afghanistan and the Taliban’s destruction in 2003 of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But the distant trajectory leads to the alleged destruction by rampaging Muslim overlords in 1202 of Nalanda University, since the 5th century a primary center of Buddhist culture and learning in India [see “When the Monks Met the Muslims” on p. 58 –The Eds.]. Yet the story as it is told is not exactly true—Nalanda continued to function and was not destroyed. Perhaps most important, this line of argument ignores the fact that Buddhists and Muslims lived together with little strife on the Asian subcontinent for nearly a thousand years.
THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER
The military kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. The military persecuted her friends and colleagues. The military was ultimately responsible for the fact that she did not see her dying husband. However, Suu Kyi doesn’t hold it against them. “I’ve never thought that what they did to me was personal, anyway. It is politics,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a 2012 interview. “I like a lot of the generals, I’m rather inclined to liking people. . . . Well, I’ve always got on with people in the army. You mustn’t forget that my father was the founder of the Burmese army. And this is why I have a soft spot for them, even though I don’t like what they do. That’s different from not liking them.” At the bottom of the screen, a CNN banner flashed the quote: “i like a lot of the generals.” Amanpour admitted to being “stunned” by the statement, and Suu Kyi seemed bemused by her reaction. “Are you really? I think it’s perfectly natural to feel this way.”
The interview marked the beginning of the world’s frustration with Suu Kyi. But in fact, she had already said something similar, in 1988: “I feel strong attachment to the armed forces,” she stated at the Shwedagon Pagoda in August of that year, just as she was emerging as the leader of the prodemocracy movement challenging the junta. “Not only were they built up by my father; as a child I was cared for by his soldiers.” Justin Wintle, the author of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, describes the reaction at the time. “This took some by surprise, especially the handful of foreigners present, who knew Burma only as a country crushed by its military, as a bulletocracy.”
Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, did indeed lead Burma’s army, but he was assassinated by rivals in 1947, less than a year before independence from the British. Like her father, Suu Kyi has demonstrated a calculated approach to leadership. In the beginning of the independence struggle, Aung San was on the side of the Japanese. But when he saw the way the wind was blowing, he switched to the British side. There are additional stories about his strongman tendencies, all but forgotten and little investigated. Writing in the New Yorker in September, Gavin Jacobson describes Aung San as an “extraordinarily tenacious, even ruthless, man who navigated between the British and Japanese empires in order to achieve his objective—a unified, independent Burma.” He was also, Jacobson writes, “a Burmese nationalist who cared little for the nation’s ethnic minorities. Today he is universally venerated in Myanmar, while few outside the country know who he is. This has almost certainly influenced Aung San Suu Kyi, who mimics his leadership style, moral code, and political priorities. The Rohingya are a distraction from her overriding ambition: to complete her father’s dream of unifying the country and ending a civil war that has raged between ethnic rebel forces and the Myanmar government since 1948.”
This is persuasive, but it still feels incomplete. Suu Kyi barely knew her father; she was 2 years old when he was killed. The two also rose to prominence at very different times: one, as colonialism was ending, and the other, as communism was fading. Suu Kyi’s years abroad and at Oxford were totally unlike her father’s years back home. Her experience with the world outside Myanmar—she worked at the United Nations, lived in different countries, and married a British academic—have provided her with very different perspectives. She may mimic her father and hold herself up as the successor to his legacy, but in the end she’s her own person.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her prodemocracy supporters did not topple the military-backed government in a Tahrir Square–like denouement. Though their long-standing activism and sacrifices had clearly turned them into a force to be contended with, the slow transition to democracy was, in the end, supported and endorsed by the military. But why would the military support a process that would lead to a loss of their power? For some observers, the answer is obvious: they would need the new government to prove so feckless as to convince the public of the need for the military to continue to play a strong role in national life. In this scheme, which resembles something out of the television fantasy series Game of Thrones, Suu Kyi is a pawn in the military’s chess game. Dr. Andrew Selth, a scholar who has long studied the country’s political and cultural life, writes in the Nikkei Asian Review: “There is no doubt that political developments in Myanmar over the past decade or so have conformed to a blueprint developed by the former military government.” In a seven-step plan first announced in 2003 by then prime minister Khin Nyunt as a roadmap to “discipline-flourishing democracy,” the last step, Selth observes, was to create a “modern, developed, and democratic nation.”
Looked at this way, Suu Kyi’s rise to power seems not so much a triumph of good over evil as a carefully construed plot by military men whose strategy mirrors the celebrated line from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novella The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Yet as tantalizing as the long con theory is, there is a problem with it, according to Selth. Though the military wants to retain influence, and continues to push amendments to the 2008 constitution, their goals are in some ways similar to those of the NLD. “They have made it clear that they too want Myanmar to be strong, modern, prosperous, stable, united, independent, and respected,” Selth writes. The military’s plan stops short of using Suu Kyi as a pawn. The plan was to “step back from day-to-day government and allow a transition to a more democratic system, albeit one in which the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Armed Forces] still exercised considerable influence. But the argument that the generals have a second secret plan deliberately to make Suu Kyi’s government fail lacks credibility. That would defeat the purpose of the first.”
To many on the outside looking in, Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya crisis has seemed not only callous in the face of unimaginable pain but also plodding and visionless. Political dissidents often struggle to achieve the transition from icon to leader, but Suu Kyi seems to have struggled more than most. She speaks to the local media only when absolutely necessary, she comes off as aloof and out of touch, and her speeches lack concrete policy ideas or substantive plans. They are also, as we have seen with Rakhine and the slaying of Ko Ni, delivered much later than political necessity demands. But where critics see flaws, supporters see a grand design, an elaborate blueprint that only Suu Kyi has access to and that she will follow steadfastly without bowing to pressure. In this view, every Suu Kyi speech hits just the right notes. After her remarks were live-streamed from City Hall (and were widely derided by rights groups as evasive when it came to allegations of military atrocities against the Rohingya), an NLD spokesman praised the speech in an interview with me, describing it as striking just the right balance. When I asked him why she spoke in English when most people in the country don’t speak it as a first language, he said he thought most would understand.
When Suu Kyi skipped the UN General Assembly in September and sent Vice President Henry Van Thio in her stead, many interpreted it as a way of avoiding censure on the world stage. Not so at home, where supporters interpreted her selection of Thio, a Christian from the Chin minority, as a subtle way to show the world that ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar held positions of power. A colleague sent me a Facebook comment by one admirer that summed up this thinking: “Mummy’s moves are beautiful.” Myanmar’s Religious Affairs Minister said in late October 2017 that Suu Kyi’s morality, integrity, and wisdom were “extremely high,” more so than could be seen in “ordinary folks.” He also spoke of her as the kind of “precious leader” and “priceless treasure” that only appears once in every era. The historic visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar in November could also be seen as another brilliant move to show the world that the country was in favor of pluralism. While this analysis of Suu Kyi may seem delusional and even offensive, given the circumstances in Rakhine State and in Bangladesh, it is also the most important.
As the Rohingya crisis worsens and criticism rises, support for the Counsellor at home goes into overdrive, creating a blinding effect. So long as this is maintained there will be little incentive to change course. But if Suu Kyi really knows best, why is nothing working? Why are tourists cancelling trips to Myanmar? Why is one of the biggest success stories in the world joining the ranks of the biggest failures? Why did the pope’s visit make Myanmar look even more close-minded as he avoided even saying the term “Rohingya” out of respect for his hosts, who are so afraid of a word?
Grandmasters don’t lose this often.