Away from the glitter and pomp of Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-awaited visit to the US, a storm is brewing. The Burmese opposition leader has made several comments during the trip that have angered onlookers, including figures in the pro-democracy movement who feel she not only has pushed compromise with the government too far, but is deliberately side-stepping several major crises whose resolution would paradoxically aid the democratic transition she has long fought for.
Although acknowledging the criticism she has received for refusing to call out the Burmese army’s ongoing attacks on Kachin civilians, Suu Kyi said on Sunday that the silence was justified through “not [wanting] to add fire to any side of the conflict.” Criticising the military would exacerbate fighting, she thinks. According to The Irrawaddy, she went on to say that solving the conflict “means being calm and considering the roots of the problem, instead of pointing fingers and blaming each other”.
Suu Kyi’s apparent reluctance to tackle Burma’s “ethnic problem” – which has at its core the inability of the government (and some Burmese) to co-exist harmoniously with ethnic minorities – has long been a sticking point for democracy campaigners and ethnic leaders, but now with Suu Kyi in parliament, the anger at her reluctance to speak out is rising.
Hkun Htun Oo, the ethnic Shan leader last week in the US to receive a Democracy Award, said in Washington that she had been “neutralized” by the government and therefore “can no longer speak for the rights of the people”. He feels she has compromised her ability to stand up for all citizens of Burma in order to enter parliament. Others take this further, by claiming her political platform allows her to protect the Burman majority, but not the 40 percent of the country made up of minority populations.
This debate came to the fore in the wake of rioting between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in June. The same questions were asked of her silence over the suffering of the Rohingya: is she prioritizing her future political career over the notions of democracy and equal rights for all that have guided her struggle since 1988? And if so, should she be called out for it, despite so many admirers of the Nobel Laureate appearing loath to do?
DVB today quoted Benedict Rogers, from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who argues that “too much public criticism of her is not necessarily helpful”. He says instead that “it is more useful to express concerns privately and constructively.” But that stance only works if she does interact regularly with groups and individuals who are willing to raise these issues to the prominence they deserve, given the future ramifications of not resolving the Kachin and Rohingya crises. Instead however, her rise to parliament carries the risk of neglecting the grassroots movements’ that were so key to Burma’s development, something that so many activists-cum-politicians forced into a position of compromise are wont to do.
What won’t have helped is Suu Kyi’s apparent dismissal of voices that would assert a moral need to speak as more important than the political costs of doing so. In a surprise comment last week that epitomizes more than anything the transformation she has undergone over the past year, she said: “I don’t believe in professional dissidents. I think it’s just a phase, like adolescence.”
Take that how you will, but it’s an attitude that could well alienate many supporters, and even the veteran activists of the 88 Generation who, decades after adolescence, continue in their role as dissidents. Political oppression in Burma has not stopped, and thus dissent remains a key weapon. Now out of house arrest and securely in parliament, is Suu Kyi suggesting that criticism of the quasi-military government is both wrong and naïve? It would appear so.
Contrast this, and her refusal to speak out on the Kachin and Rohingya, with comments made regarding the jailed Pussy Riot activist singers in Russia. At an Amnesty International event in the US on Thursday, she called for their release, stating that “governments must be prepared to take criticism.” It paints a confusing picture, not least because around the same time, police were arresting Kachin protestors (a.k.a., dissidents) in Rangoon who were demanding the army cease operations in the north. One angry commenter on Facebook questioned whether she thought Pussy Riot “more important than minority suffering in burma”.
In another bizarre remark, she told students at Columbia University in New York at the weekend that she had a “soft spot” for Burma’s military because of the role of her father, independence hero General Aung San, in it. This is again likely to draw the ire of groups like the Kachin, who continue to flee attacks from troops and whose women continue to be systematically raped.
Has she then, as Burmese activist and academic Maung Zarni believes, “morphed into Naypyidaw’s most effective saleswoman and marketing agent”? She does appear to be following their lead, but as I have noted before, there may be a tactical side to it whereby she panders to both the government (re. Kachin) and Burmese public (re. Rohingya) in order to increase her chances of winning office in 2015. After that, the argument runs, she could really tackle these issues more substantially as Burma’s leader, rather than an MP.
Notwithstanding the obstacles in place to block her road to office, in the meantime blood continues to be shed in the ethnic regions, and dissidents continue to be jailed. These are issues that are fundamental to Burma’s trajectory from hereon out, and it’s right that Suu Kyi’s shifting stances on both subjects are scrutinized and called out when necessary, as any politician should be. She herself could suffer politically if she loses the trust, and therefore vote, of ethnic minorities. The Kachin and Rohingya protests that accompanied her visits to London and New York respectively signal that this is an increasingly likely prospect.