Is Aung San Suu Kyi really angry?

Aung San Suu Kyi, the misunderstood icon of democracy

Almost a year ago, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to The Hague to defend her country before the International Court of Justice. When the Myanmar army cracked down on the Rohingya in 2017, there may have been "inappropriate violence," said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But they rejected an intention to commit genocide, as identified in a report by the UN. 700,000 members of the Muslim minority subsequently fled to neighboring Bangladesh. In an article for the Financial Times, she speculated that some Rohingya had "exaggerated" the extent of the mistreatment.

Suu Kyi is popular and highly respected in Myanmar: In the general election on Sunday, her National Democratic League (NDL) won with a large majority for the second time, in only the second free elections since democratization around ten years ago. The final results were still pending, but Suu Kyi's party was convinced of a high election victory on Monday.

But in the West she has lost a lot of prestige since her performance on the Rohingya. Numerous awards were withdrawn from her. Former Suu Kyi fans wonder how it can be that a Nobel Peace Prize laureate suddenly defends alleged genocide in her own country.

Wrong expectations

Behind the supposedly deep fall are hidden hopes, tenacious realpolitik - and false expectations. False expectations from Suu Kyi herself, who has not been able to implement planned reforms from within since her party took over the helm in 2015.

And there are false expectations of western observers behind it, who stylized Suu Kyi in the 1990s as a figure who would bring a democracy in ideal form to Myanmar. The fact that behind the "struggle for democracy" of the people there developed very own, historically grown conflicts has often been overlooked in the West.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Rangoon in 1945, the daughter of General Aung San. The general is revered to this day as the pioneer of a modern Burma, which in 1946 drove out the colonial powers and later led the country to independence. Suu Kyi's father was murdered in 1947, and since then the country has been in a civil war almost continuously, mostly ruled by a military government.

Uprising for more democracy

In 1988 there was a great uprising against the military dictatorship. In the process, Suu Kyi, daughter of the celebrated nation's founder, became the icon of change who should complete her father's legacy, analyzes the historian Thant Myint-U. For many Burmese the army was just astray. Suu Kyi should "get the country back on track," he explains in an episode of the Talking Politics podcast.

Her courageous commitment to change and democracy brought Suu Kyi great international reputation - especially at a time of great change in the West, during the fall of the Soviet Union. In the West, the image of the young Suu Kyi solidified, who fought with full commitment for democracy and human rights. In 1991 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for this.

But the democracy that Suu Kyi and her supporters wanted was not exactly what the West meant by it. "It wasn't about different institutions like the free press, the justice system and so on," says Thant. Most of all, people wanted to be able to choose the leader they wanted: "'Democracy' simply meant Suu Kyi's triumph over the generals."

House arrest for 15 years

Suu Kyi spent almost 15 years under house arrest in Rangoon, with little contact with his family. In 1972 she married the British Tibetologist Michael Aris, whom she had met while studying at Oxford. When her husband developed cancer, he was not allowed to visit her. He died in 1999 without the two of them seeing each other again. Many of her companions died in solitary confinement. Many went into exile and turned their backs on the country forever.

At the end of the noughties there was a long-awaited opening in Myanmar, Suu Kyi was allowed to leave house arrest, and the first free and fair elections for generations took place. In 2015 the NLD immediately won an absolute like a landslide. The military remained powerful, however, because 25 percent of the seats in parliament are automatically reserved for the army.

Minority rights not a major concern

Because Suu Kyi has two British sons, she was not allowed - according to the constitution - to become head of government. For this reason, a kind of advisory service was set up for her, which means that she is de facto in control. The hopes that were placed in it internationally, however, quickly faded. With regard to democratization, it has not yet been able to achieve its goal: the army did not agree to a constitutional amendment that would limit the military's claim to 25 percent of the seats in parliament. And in the Rohingya crisis, it cuts a catastrophic figure internationally. Observers suspect that Suu Kyi was holding the bar to the military on the Rohingya issue in return for a constitutional amendment. If that was their score, it didn't work out.

However, minority rights have never been at the core of their agenda. Since the time of her father, General Aung San, the Buddhist-Burmese majority of the Bamar (of which the family also belongs) has been the norm in the extremely diverse country. Many of the numerous ethnic groups felt excluded from the start. For historian Thant, Suu Kyi is both the victim and the author of the developments in the country torn by constant war: "Whatever her personal values, she too believes in this nationalist narrative."

In the West, countries hold back with their criticism. The current elections signaled an "important step in the democratization of the country," said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, even if he had "concerns". The EU also praised Myanmar, but criticized the fact that many Rohingya did not have the right to vote.

The Rohingya question is increasingly turning out to be a litmus test for Suu Kyi. It is no longer just about living up to their international reputation. Rather, it is about a peaceful future in her country, for which she has been fighting all her life. (Anna Sawerthal 11/10/2020)