The first time I saw Aung San Suu Kyi was at the Irrawaddy Literature Festival in Yangon in 2013. People started moving into the ballroom of the Inya Lake Hotel 30 minutes before her speech. As she was just released in 2010, people in the festival were excited to see her trying to get into the already-packed room. After what seemed like an eternity, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared with security guards pushing the wall of people taking photos of her with their smart phones. She did not look at anyone, her head high.
She said a few things about how literature is important for development of a nation. I was not impressed. I sensed a patronizing tone in her voice and I thought her speech was such a cliche. Aung San Suu Kyi I saw for the first time was different from what I imagined. Disappointed, I left the ballroom where she was giving a speech. Later, I told my friends that her speech was full of rhetoric. Anyone in the crowd could give a similar speech. I had expected her to have more insightful thoughts.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a former democracy and human rights icon, is now widely criticized for her lack of sympathy on Rohingya minorities in Myanmar, and deservedly so. By the time I finished writing this article, over 650,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh amidst the crackdown of the Burmese military according to the U.N Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Her government proposed a plan to take back the Rohingya refugees. Human rights organizations raised voices of concern regarding the plan because no perpetrators from the military were held accountable. Although most of the international criticism was due to Rohingya crisis, she does not do well domestically either. Often her actions are different than her words.
The earliest forewarning of Aung San Suu Kyi’s hypocrisy was when she was appointed to chair Letpadaung Investigation Commission during the time of Thein Sein Administration in 2012 to solve the disputes between the Wanbao Mining, a Chinese state-owned company, and villagers who were displaced by force. When she visited the site, she told the protesters that they should respect “rule of law” and sacrifice their lands for the nation.
This is sharply in contrast with her past criticism against the military’s way of doing business and China’s irresponsible business practices.
As a female leader, she is expected to promote gender equality and she did. But she only paid lip service.
She urged the public to work towards promotion of women rights in a 2014 UN Women video. She said, “more women rights mean more human rights”. She also participated in the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict asking the public to promote women’s rights “by putting a stop to rape and gender violence that create humility and fear”. She also called for more representation of women in political leadership. In addition, before 2015 general election, the NLD Manifesto promises to enhance the rights of women. However, her actions turned out to be quite the opposite of what she said.
The new cabinet formed by NLD party in 2016 has only one female minister — Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Furthermore, Thura Aung Ko, the Minister of the Religious Affairs and Culture, was accused of raping an ethnic Chin school teacher during his campaign tour in Southern Chin State. Her government did not open an investigation into this allegation despite the outcry of human rights organizations. She is even more disrespectful when the allegations came from Rohingya, the most persecuted minority of the country. After reports of the Burmese soldiers inflicting sexual violence on Rohingya women emerged during the military’s “clearance operations” against Rohingya insurgents, her Facebook page was quick to label them as ‘fake rape’.
Before she came into power, Aung San Suu Kyi was quite vocal about sanctions targeted towards the ruling class of Myanmar and she was right to do so. Famously dubbed as ‘cronies’ in the local media, the business people who are friends with the generals are the most revolted group in Myanmar. Their wealth is essentially built on the suffering and misery of farmers whose lands were robbed, villagers whose houses were bulldozed, and underpaid miners and child labor in jade mines. In her 1997 opinion piece in the New York Times, Aung San Suu Kyi urged the international community to impose sanctions on the Burmese military regime and their business friends because “investment that only goes to enrich an already wealthy elite bent on monopolizing both economic and political power cannot contribute toward égalité and justice”. Her opinion swiftly changed when she is in power.
She and her government made friends with the former business friends of the army. In a speech given to the entrepreneurs in Nay Pyi Daw, Aung San Suu Kyi urged the general public to treat the business tycoons who monopolize the economy as ‘fellow citizens’ and build the country together. A company run by Kyaw Ne Win, a grandson of the former dictator Ne Win, became the largest bus operator in Yangon, the commercial city with six million population. When Aung San Suu Kyi visited conflict-torn Rakhine State, she had business tycoons deeply linked to the military surrounded her. Although it is not clear why they were together with her, her recent change of attitude towards military cronyism is obvious.
During the political turmoil of 1988 nation-wide uprising, she became popular among people largely due to her father, an architect of the country’s independence. Aung San Suu Kyi knew that it was the selling point to appeal the Burmese public and she used it. Her nationalism portrayed by her strict adherence to Burmese attire and religious life as a Buddhist might have also helped her in this respect. For the international audience, she used her status as a woman and liberal values such as human rights and democracy.
It might not be unfair putting all the blame on her now since she has already said several times that she wants to be seen as a politician and not as a human rights icon. Perhaps, to bluntly paraphrase her words, she wants us to regard what she said in the past as nothing but lies coming from a typical politician.
As a citizen of Myanmar, I have lost hope in her. Instead of promoting the freedom, justice and equality for all the citizens, and protecting the minorities including Rohingya, other Muslims and women, she has chosen to go down the path of the former military generals and other politicians. As a 72-year-old, she might want to enjoy the taste of power while alive. But she will not be dearly remembered after her death.