Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence

As the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar (formerly Burma) continues, so do calls for the country’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to publicly condemn the Burmese military. On September 19th, she broke her silence, but not in a way the international community wanted. She stated that Myanmar needs to find out “what the real problems are” in Rakhine state. In the same speech, she also mentioned that Myanmar did not fear international scrutiny. The international community has continuously supported Aung San Suu Kyi throughout her struggle for democracy in Myanmar. Her silence now that she is in power is disappointing, but can be explained by Burmese politics.

Between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of her time either imprisoned or under house arrest. The reason was her forming the National League of Democracy (NLD) party and non-violently protesting for democracy in Myanmar. However, despite her troubles with her home government, the international community loved her. In 1991 she was award the Nobel Peace Prize. After 2010, she was allowed to enter parliament when the NLD won the majority of the seats. Then president Thein Sein called for the country’s first open elections in 25 years in 2015. The NLD won by a landslide and Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed to her current position.

Aung San Suu Kyi Addresses the Members of Parliament by European Parliament, Flickr Creative Commons. 

While Aung San Suu Kyi had a struggle to gain power, the Rohingya people have struggled for basic human rights. The Burmese government has never recognized the Rohingya people as part of their country, and do not even allow them to vote. They primarily reside in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which has a poverty rate of 78%. Violence has been a constant in Rakhine, but recently sparked again last month when Rohingya extremists attacked 30 police stations, causing a heavy crack down from the military.

The question is why is Aung San Suu Kyi remaining quiet on this crisis. She has received widespread condemnation and calls for her to meet with the Rohingya people. To understand her silence, one must understand the political climate of Myanmar. In Myanmar, the Rohingya are widely unpopular. A Muslim minority in a Buddhist country, many see them as outsiders. A UN spokeswoman called the group ‘the most friendless people in the word.’ For someone who only recently gained political power, advocating for these people could lead for the majority of Myanmar to turn against her. It could cost her party votes in 2020. She has only been in power for less than 2 years; she is not going to jeopardize her political power even if it earns her condemnation abroad.

I am not arguing that Aung San Suu Kyi should not condemn the military’s brutal crackdown. The Rohingya people have long been persecuted and it is morally wrong for a government to continue treating them as outsiders. However, in order to keep power, Aung San Suu Kyi will likely continue to remain silent.

Featured Image: Myanmar/Burma: Little Hope for Rohingya IDPs by European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr Creative Commons 

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAc5AAAAJDhjMmM1M2IxLTg5MjktNGFhNC1hZjIzLTU4YTQxNGYyYjg4ZgLaurel Anderson is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School focusing on Diplomacy and Security. She is also ExPatt Magazine’s Digital Editor. She received her bachelor’s degree at Centre College with a major in International Relations and a minor in Asian Studies. Her primary interests include democratic movements in Asia, nuclear diplomacy, and the rise of China.

1 thought on “Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence

  1. Here is the a tragic reality: the Tatmadaw has sapped The Lady of her moral authority in a great strategic game.

    When I was at Patterson in 2012, we visited the University of Louisville, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was speaking. I had the opportunity to ask The Lady a question, and wondered about her perspective on “the Rakhine Issue” which was just beginning to explode. Even then, at the peak of her native and international popularity post-release, finally in a position of political influence as an MP, she demurred on the crucial issue.

    Your posts fails to speak to the complex role of the military in Myanmar politics. ASSK has no power over security operations of the state. The military has, incredibly, become heroic to everyday Myanmar people in the face of the ARSA extremists.

    It is hard to view today’s situation and deny that the Tatmadaw has been playing a larger long game–using the new constitution, the release of ASSK, the new government, sweeping reforms and the accomplishment of the removal of international sanctions to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of Myanmar people.

    In so doing they have essentially sidelined ASSK. Speaking out in public doesn’t just alienate her from the views of everyday Myanmar. It also puts her opposite the newly found popular authority of the military.

    She may be clinging to a position of power to attempt positive change in other issue areas, but this issue overshadows all others, and cannot be isolated from Myanmar’s development challenge. She stands little to gain at home from speaking out, yes. But more so, the military has co-opted her moral authority to ever do that anyway.

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