Many years ago, a newspaper article about Aung San Suu Kyi, then an icon of resistance to the military, caused a sensation. The authoritative and pompous Journal de Geneve savaged the “Lady in Yellow,” declaring her guilty of being the daughter of an elite that, like elsewhere in the world, could educate her little ones in British universities and then let them pretend to be revolutionaries.
But Suu Kyi, who had not yet been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and had a lifetime house arrest in her future, was herself a daughter of the elite (her father had been the hero of the anti-Japanese resistance). But she was not pretending.
In 1988, the Burmese military, in power since 1962, still claiming a vague socialist principle, had drowned the revolt in blood for the umpteenth time, and Suu Kyi became much more than just an icon of resistance to the regime. The woman had courage to spare and an iron will masked by a disarming smile. She received the Nobel Prize in 1991. In 1999, when her English husband was dying in a European bed, the military gave her permission to travel for the last farewell. But she refused. She knew that if she left, she would never be allowed to return.
Seventeen years later, Suu Kyi, who for years has been the darling of every lover of freedom and rights, is still targeted. Faced with the mistreatment of a Muslim minority in the country she leads (she is not the prime minister, but it is as if she were), she remains silent. Not a word other than some perfunctory babble.
Everybody pounced on her, certainly with reason. Why doesn’t she speak up? Political calculation? Atavistic hatred for Muslims? Sharing the worst instincts of some monks (including the well known Ashin Wirathu)?
An Italian diplomatic official states: “She is doing what she can because weighing on her is the risk of a coup.” In other words, she’s contending not only with the possibility of a confrontation with a very strong political power, but the risk of a popular backlash is always lurking. One signal is enough to stir the soldiers from their barracks.
When in 2015 her League for Democracy won the elections, it inevitably opened a difficult transition. It’s been characterized by a forced legal cohabitation that guarantees the military a quarter of the Parliament seats and places generals in the Internal Affairs, Defense and Borders ministries, three key portfolios to manage a country now governed by civilians.
Suu Kyi leads the government (even if her official title is only “State Counsellor”) but does not hold the actual power to govern. Despite winning the election, her party has to deal with a legislature — elected democratically for the first time — split into two entities, each one-fourth populated by military personnel: the Chamber of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) has 224 seats, and the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) has 440.
Of course, the League has the presidency of the Republic and various ministries, but the internal affairs and defense offices remain in the hands of soldiers.
In this arm wrestling, Rohingya persecution has become an international cause, but the crisis had actually already erupted several times in recent years: in 1978, in 1992, in 2012 and last October. During the 2012 pogrom, Suu Kyi took no position. And during the elections, she did not mention the fact that the Rohingya could not vote. But she was not yet in power then; her silence was embarrassing, but it was forgiven.
But to say she did not do anything would be unfair. She called Kofi Annan and suggested him as a special envoy for the issue. Annan justified her silence by criticizing those who, like the Malaysian government, regarded the Rohingya affair as a “genocide.”
Her government has also appointed an inquiry commission; however, its results are more than questionable. Apparently it sent the military a sort of fact-finding questionnaire at a time when, a month ago, the issue had already reached massive proportions.
Even so, the committee received no reply. The wrestling, if any, is taking place behind closed doors. None of this is to justify her actions, but it sheds light on an impossible negotiation with the military while the entire peace process with the armed minorities in the rest of the country is at stake.
That silence is heavy. It’s a stain that will be very difficult to remove from her saffron dress.
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