“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it”
These were the first sentences of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1991 speech “Freedom from Fear” published in a book of the same name in 1994. Having returned to Myanmar (previously Burma) in 1988, after 41 years of a military junta government, Aung San Syy Kyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) and began a long period of leading the non-violent movement towards the democratization of the country.
In her 1991 speech Daw Suu Kyi expressed her support for the anti-governmental student protests and commended their courage, comparing it to that of the independentist leaders in colonial Myanmar (her father foremost amongst them). Most importantly, she reiterated the entitlement of all people to human rights “regardless of race, nationality or religion”, and called for a “closer relationship between ethics and politics”.
Due to her fervent and non-violent struggle for Myanmar’s democratization, Aung San Suu Kyi lived under house arrest a total of 15 years between 1989 to 2010. During this time, she was praised as a human rights heroine, and given more than 20 internationally recognized awards. In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize and was named “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”. A decade later, when receiving UNESCO’s Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence, Saw Suu Kyi gave a vehement speech on the link between violence and non-tolerance.
“If we cannot make an effort to understand how people feel, we will never be able to understand their pain. In our movement for democracy and human rights in Burma we have been very strict about following a path of non-violence because we believe that, in the long run, violence will only bring pain and more suffering for our people”
As the movie made in her honor shows, her political struggle came at the cost of many personal sacrifices. Confined as she was on house arrest, she spent most of the time after 1988 away from her husband and children and was not able to bid him farewell before he passed away from cancer in 1999. These circumstances combined with increased western media attention increased the public’s sympathy with her cause and heightened her status as one of human kinds biggest role-models, alongside figures like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
In November 2016, after two failed attempts at democratic general elections, Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory for the seats in the national parliament. The people from Myanmar celebrated, the western world with them, and Aung San Suu Kyi became the de-facto leader of Myanmar. The world’s eyes turned to her, hopeful, as she prepared to lead the country’s transition to democracy.
Less than three years have passed, and Daw Suu Kyi’s international reputation is in pieces. Several of her awards have been revoked and there is a growing public call to take away her Nobel Peace Prize. Her moral authority, once an international symbol of resistance, is increasingly questioned. Twenty-eight years of political activism seem to have been torn to shreds in just two years and ten months.
What has happened?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group in Rakhine State, in the western half of Myanmar, who are not recognized as citizens by the country’s government. Since 2012, intercommunal violence has increased in Rakhine State leading to riots and the internal displacement of more than 140,000 Rohingya. In 2015 they were stripped of their identification papers, leaving them stateless and without protection.
The minority’s mistreatment led to the formation of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group. In 2016 and 2017 they attacked some of Myanmar’s police posts and killed 12 people; as a response, Myanmar’s military or Tatmadaw, launched an attack against Rohingya communities. According to a recent UNHRC Report released this year, the Tatmadaw targeted villages based on their ethnic background, attacked civilian population, and killed men, women and children without distinction. They also looted, destroyed and burnt homes and property. Of the 1.1 million Rohingya registered in Myanmar before 2016, more than 700,000 have fled the country and remain as refugees in Bangladesh.
Up until now, Aung San Suu Kyi’s only opinion about the Rohingya situation has been that the government could have handled things better. In September 2018, two Reuter’s journalists that were looking into the Tatmadaw’s actions in Rohingya state were arrested for alleged possession of official secrets (despite evidence that they had been set up) and convicted to seven years of prison. Aung San Suu Kyi defended the civil court’s verdict.
To an international public accustomed to seeing her as a symbol of dialogue and non-violence, this behavior came as a shock. As such, several theses trying to explain her actions—or lack thereof—have been proposed. Her defenders sustain that she is showing pragmatism and trying to avoid conflicts with the military leaders, in a situation where they continue to hold one quarter of the parliament seats and significant constitutional powers. Others claim that as a Buddhist and a member of Myanmar’s largest ethnic group, she has never really cared about the Muslim and Christian minorities of the country. This last argument is especially surprising when one analyses previous speeches and writings of hers. Where is the tolerance and non-violence she once spoke of? Could she have given in to the fear of losing power?
Regardless of her reasons, other questions remain for those that once praised her, but now view her silence as condemning and complicit:
Firstly, were Aung San Suu Kyi’s values and morals exclusively her own, or were they imposed by a public eager to use her as a political standard?
Consequently, is this failure her own fault or is it also a product of the circumstances she was placed in?
And finally, in a world that places such high standards on heroes and role-models, can any human being—including Aung San Suu Kyi—live up to them?
If the answer is no, then, why create heroes at all?