THE plight of the Rohingya was brutally summed up by UN special rapporteur Yanghee Lee when she told of horrific allegations from the community of children being thrown into fires, people tied up indoors while their homes were set ablaze and last but not least, the violent raping of local women.
At the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, Lee also accused Burma of using bureaucratic means to “expel” the Rohingya minority from the country altogether.
The accusation of such unabashed brutality is the latest in a long line of accusations that reflect badly on Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has led Burma since her party’s resounding election victory back in 2015.
Suu Kyi’s government rejected Lee’s bid to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the abuses and insisted its own national probe could uncover the facts in Rakhine, leading critics to believe not enough is being done to combat the problem.
As allegations of abuse in Rakhine state and ethnic clashes in Burma’s northern states mount, Suu Kyi is coming under growing international pressure to take action. But these calls have been for naught, as they are often met with silence and denial.
Regarded for years as a beacon of hope in a country torn apart by the struggle against oppression, could Suu Kyi, the once golden child of democracy, be losing her shine?
Early “golden” years
As the darling of the West, Suu Kyi courted almost unanimously positive press from the western media at the beginning of her political career.
Her powerful, unrelenting resolve along with her undeniable allure and storybook-like post-colonial upbringing made her revered around the globe. Hundreds of thousands attended her rallies at home and her collections of writing became bestsellers abroad, drawing mass global attention to her message.
Amnesty International made her a prisoner of conscience and Vanity Fair dubbed her ‘Burma’s Saint Joan’, labels repeated countless times in news reports and speeches across the world.
In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in honour of her “unflagging efforts” and her resolve to strive for “ethnic conciliation by peaceful means”.
Then India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru award for international understanding was given the following year.
Politicians lauded her with praise and she was often mentioned in the same context as fellow freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
While under military-enforced house arrest in Rangoon, reporters took great risks to speak to her, to hear her courageous story of resistance.
Portraits of her were seen all over the world, and celebrities clambered to jump on the Suu Kyi bandwagon.
It seemed there was no limit to her global popularity.
But there has been a notable shift in opinion of late amid mounting reports of rights abuses coming out of Burma, putting her status as exemplar of democratic values under threat.
Since the military launched a crackdown back in October following the death of nine policemen in Rakhine state, it is believed that 75,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh with another 20,000 being displaced within Rakhine state, the UN reported. Claims of rape and murder, and accusations of ethnic cleansing, at the hands of the armed forces have been rife.
Rather than end this cycle of persecution and violence, Suu Kyi is being accused of pandering to Burma’s Buddhist majority in an attempt to court votes rather than assert her principles. She is also yet to visit the area, which has been sealed off under a military directive designed to keep out foreign aid workers and journalists.
While Suu Kyi has taken steps to set up several commissions to review the situation in the Rakhine state, their impartiality have been questioned.
UN rapporteur Lee has stated that she does not believe that they have discharged their investigative obligations and questioned to what extent the investigations will be prompt, thorough, independent and impartial. She has also accused them of not having a “robust methodology or policies in place to address key issues such as witness protection or documentation of evidence.”
Progress in northern Kachin and Shan states, which have seen rebel fighting for decades, has also been almost non-existent despite promises from the National League for Democracy (NLD) to make it a priority following their election victory, with the aim of achieving a nationwide ceasefire by February 2017.
Following the NLD’s peace conference in late August, the military ramped up attacks in Kachin, intensified operations in neighbouring Shan state and began a hunt for a rebel splinter group in southern Karen state, an area that had seen little fighting for years.
Thousands of civilians were displaced and reports emerged of torture, extrajudicial killings and indiscriminate shelling of villages, for which the army has long been notorious.
Suu Kyi’s muted responses to the allegations of killings and abuse have largely consisted of defending or denying the actions of the military.
“Show me a country without human rights issues,” she said in October, as reported by New York Times.
“Every country has human rights abuses.”
A few weeks later during a visit to Tokyo, she said, “We have been very careful not to blame anyone until we have complete evidence about who has been responsible.”
In response to the Kachin problem, Suu Kyi’s office issued a statement claiming that the “information is absolutely not true.”
Suu Kyi has repeatedly tried to downplay the accusations and the scale of the military operations in both regions, drawing condemnation from rights groups and leaders alike.
Amid the escalating human rights abuses, she is also cultivating a reputation for being above public scrutiny and highly anti-media.
And gone are the days of courting international journalists; Suu Kyi now rarely gives interviews to the Burmese press and carefully handpicks her encounters with international media. There is no regular questioning from MPs in Parliament and there has not been a proper press conference since just before the election 14 months ago.
Her government has also taken full advantage of the controversial Telecommunications Law that polices online defamation of the regime, jailing 38 people since her election victory in 2015.
Toeing the line?
Suu Kyi’s almost steadfast refusal to criticise the military now that she is in power, after being a vocal critic whilst in opposition, has raised the question – is she toeing the line or does she believe what she says?
As the civilian leader of the government, Suu Kyi shares power with the military. The army controls the vital cabinets of defence, home affairs and border affairs. Notably, these are the ministries that are running the anti-insurgency operation in Rakhine State.
Suu Kyi has in the past vowed to change this but so far no clear intent towards that has been displayed.
Given the military’s pervasive power, Suu Kyi is forced to work with the men in uniform, rather than against them. The relationship remains tenuous and there continues to be a substantial sources of friction, however, it is a relationship born out of necessity, said Larry Jagan, a former BBC World Service journalist.
“They are working closely together on the peace process, and understand they need each other for this,” he said.
This has led many to believe that Suu Kyi may be biding her time until she is able to curtail the military’s power and shift the balance of power in her direction.
Some believe, however, that Suu Kyi may believe what she says due to the source of her information.
Most of the information she receives on the Rohingya and northern states come from military leaders, leading to some analysts in Burma to believe the army may have convinced her that Rohingya in Rakhine are terrorists.
Her government advisers are also mostly former military officers, or veteran civil servants with firm beliefs about the superiority of Buddhist values over all others, they say.
This theory is supported by comments from U Zaw Htay, spokesman for Suu Kyi, saying she was “standing” with the military.
“She knows everything,” he said, “The military has been briefing her on every important issue.”
Once the lionised freedom fighter, Suu Kyi now finds herself leader of a country responsible for the most persecuted minority in the world.
“Aung San Suu Kyi was held as this Joan of Arc figure and was such a beacon of hope for the Myanmar people that, in any other country, she was almost bound to fail,” argued Andrew Jaggard of consulting firm Mekong Economics.
Many who admired her resolve throughout the years of house arrest, and those Burmese that believed she was the symbol of hope, remain disillusioned in her failure to act in the face of wrongdoing.
Perhaps Suu Kyi is laying the groundwork and biding her time until an opportunity shows itself to make real change. Or perhaps she is a cynical politician who is willing to put votes ahead of principles.
But as Harvard Law Professor Tyler Gianni told the New York Times:
“She says she is a politician [but] you can have politics and you can have protection of the civilian population at the same time.”