By Deborah Charles
Twenty years ago I used to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi over a spotty telephone connection to Yangon from Bangkok, or in person when I managed to get into Myanmar and she was free to accept visitors in the house that served as her prison for 15 years.
At the time she wanted to get word out of the repression in her country, where the military rulers had imprisoned her for her efforts to bring democracy to the Southeast Asian nation.
Suu Kyi wanted to make sure the world knew of the human rights violations going on in Myanmar (also known as Burma) and of the thousands of people who had been unfairly detained for supporting democracy.
Suu Kyi urged international companies not to do business with the generals running Myanmar, convincing many top international brands to pull out of the country in the 1990s. Most Western nations backed Suu Kyi and called on the military leaders to restore democracy and human rights.
But now, two years after seeming to attain her goal by becoming the de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, Suu Kyi has changed.
Suu Kyi now faces criticism around the world.
Suu Kyi was once revered and called “the Lady,” whose every word about democracy and human rights was gobbled up and spread among supporters. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was called “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless” for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
Now, she faces criticism around the world for failing to speak out about the military-led mass killings of Rohingya Muslims.
More than 700,000 stateless Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state into Bangladesh, according to United Nations.
UN investigators say Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya with “genocidal intent” and has called for the commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted under international law.
The Myanmar government denies refugee accusations of atrocities, saying it had conducted a counterinsurgency campaign against militants.
Suu Kyi was once a fierce proponent of the free press who used to smuggle out video tapes to journalists in Bangkok to spread news of human rights abuses while she was under house arrest. Now, she has failed to condemn the jailing of two Burmese journalists from Reuters.
What happened to the democracy leader who was once seen as an icon for freedom? Why isn’t she speaking out?
The Rohingya are not recognized by the government as an ethnic minority.
In part, it is because Suu Kyi is now in a leadership position, one she has to share with the military – the people who once imprisoned her.
She is also showing signs of the racism that has long existed in the Buddhist nation, which has more than 135 ethnic groups. The Rohingya people are not recognized by the government as an ethnic minority nationality of Myanmar.
In an apparent awareness of international reaction to her lack of action on the Rohingya issue, Suu Kyi avoids appearing on the world stage – at events like the UN General Assembly – where world leaders might question her about the situation in Myanmar.
At a recent World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Suu Kyi was asked to explain why the military government had been so brutal to the Rohingya. She did not criticize the military for the atrocities.
“With hindsight, we might think that the situation could have been handled better,” she said. “But we believe that for the sake of long-term stability and security, we have to be fair to all sides.”
Suu Kyi’s comments, which show an inability to take a moral stand, have angered supporters who are distancing themselves from her.
She has been stripped of some awards and honors, and some high-level supporters are pulling away – including veteran American diplomat Bill Richardson, who recently resigned from an international panel set up by Suu Kyi to advise on the Rohingya crisis. Richardson called the panel a “whitewash.”
But the Norwegian Nobel Committee says it will not revoke Suu Kyi’s Peace Prize. The secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee said the prize is awarded for an achievement of the past and the rules regulating them do not allow for a prize to be withdrawn.
The United States, Canada and the European Union have imposed sanctions on some Myanmar military officials. Experts question whether the sanctions will have an impact or whether – as in the past – economic sanctions would just drive Myanmar closer to countries like China, which says it does not believe sanctions or criticism of the Myanmar government will help resolve the Rohingya crisis.
What will it take for Suu Kyi to change? Will the people of Myanmar, who as a rule do not have affection for the Muslim minority, ever demand accountability for what has taken happened to the Rohingya?
Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires. She currently works as the News Editor at Devex, a media platform for the global development community.