It was hailed in Europe as a victory tour. But as Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi moved gracefully across the continent this week, receiving standing ovations everywhere she went, a part of the country she hopes to rule was sliding into sectarian chaos.
Ms. Suu Kyi is a hero to many for her long fight to end to military rule in Myanmar. But having partially accomplished that goal, she's no longer a political prisoner. Instead, she's now a politician, with her own agenda, responsibilities and some uncomfortable questions to field.
Like Nelson Mandela – who received similar accolades two decades ago and took the same unlikely political journey – Ms. Suu Kyi is about to see her saintly glow compromised, not just by her longtime foes, but also by supporters who expect more of her than she can deliver.
Known as a woman of unyielding principles, she now has to check her remarks against public opinion – that is, if she wants to get elected.
Already, some are disappointed with her refusal to speak out for the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar considered to be among the world’s most persecuted people.
More than 60 people have now been killed in three weeks of clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in the west of Myanmar. The World Food Program reported it was feeding 66,000 who had been displaced by the fighting, which has seen homes torched and buses attacked by mobs, and is expecting to have to deal with tens of thousands more. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s reformist President, has warned the violence could spread to other parts of the ethnically diverse country.
The chaos in Rakhine, a state near Bangladesh, was only a footnote to Ms. Suu Kyi’s dramatic return to Europe for the first time since 1988, when she left her life and family at Oxford University to be with her ailing mother in Rangoon. But then her fateful return to the country that she and her supporters call by its former name, Burma, turned her into the hero of the country’s democracy movement, and saw her kept captive in her home by the military junta for most of the intervening 24 years.
Thanks to reforms introduced by Mr. Thein Sein, Ms. Suu Kyi was free to travel abroad and made some landmark visits, elating her international supporters as she went. In Oslo, she received the Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991. In Oxford, she received an honorary doctorate. On that bittersweet return to the university, where her husband, academic Michael Aris, lived during the last years of his life, she also celebrated her 67th birthday.
She become only the second woman – after the Queen – ever to address a joint session of the British Parliament, appeared on stage with Bono and compared notes with the Dalai Lama.
But when asked in Norway for her opinions about the violence in Rakhine, Ms. Suu Kyi sounded more like someone campaigning for office than a Nobel laureate.
“There are some who say that some of those who claim to be Rohingyas aren’t the ones actually native to Burma, but have just come over recently from Bangladesh,” she said, repeating an argument that holds little merit but is widely expressed among Myanmar’s ethnic Burman and religious Buddhist majorities.
Asked directly whether Rohingyas should be regarded as full citizens of Myanmar, she replied, “I do not know.”
The opposition leader in Myanmar’s still military-dominated parliament, Ms. Suu Kyi said this week she wants to lead her people “if I can lead them in the right way.” She has an election to win in 2015 if she wants to reach that goal.
Immediately, human-rights groups who had long held up Ms. Suu Kyi as an idol began to whisper: Was The Lady siding with those who persecute the 800,000 stateless Rohingyas?
“She needs to be saying more. Clearly this is a very serious situation and gets to the crux of what a peaceful, multi-ethnic Burma is going to have to look like,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with half a dozen ethnic militias waging off-and-on insurgencies against the government.
With passions running dangerously high back home, Ms. Suu Kyi’s answer was likely calibrated to ensure she didn’t alienate Myanmar’s large Buddhist majority, who make up about 89 per cent of her country’s 56 million citizens.
The Rohingya are widely viewed in mainstream Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Anti-Rohingya sentiment was institutionalized by the old military junta, which refused to give them passports, restricted their movement inside the country and routinely used them as forced labourers.
The government-incubated hatred provided the kindling that ignited on May 28, when three Rohingya men allegedly raped and murdered a 26-year-old Rakhine woman. Six days later, after pictures of the murder victim were circulated online, an enraged mob of about 300 Rakhines stopped a bus of Muslim pilgrims, pulled 10 passengers off and beat them to death, believing they were connected to the rape and murder. That kicked off an orgy of violence that continues despite Mr. Thein Sein’s June 10 declaration of martial law there.
Some of the ugliest commentary came from Ms. Suu Kyi’s allies, including Ko Ko Gyi, a revered leader of the pro-democracy movement who this week gave a press conference in Rangoon at which he declared “Rohingya [are] not an ethnic group in Myanmar at all. We see the riot currently happening … because of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”
Ms. Suu Kyi’s awkward handling of the Rohingya issue wasn’t the only hint of how difficult it will be for her to maintain her dual role as human-rights icon and vote-gathering politician. Her first trip outside Myanmar in 24 years was to neighbouring Thailand, where the World Economic Forum feted her last month. But she angered Mr. Thein Sein by warning the foreign investors Myanmar is trying to lure that they should maintain “healthy skepticism” about the country’s fledgling reforms. She also offended long-time supporters by not making time to meet with some Thailand-based exile groups.
It’s a transition Mr. Mandela went through in the early 1990s when the anti-apartheid hero was elected South Africa’s president and, rather than fighting for political freedom, he struggled for political survival. His approval rating predictably slid during his four years in office and he only regained his previous stature in retirement.
In many ways, Ms. Suu Kyi is better prepared for her new role than some of her followers. “I look upon myself as a politician. That’s not a dirty word, you know,” she said nearly 20 years ago while meeting visiting U.S. congressman Bill Richardson. “Some people think that there is something wrong with politicians,” she added. “Of course, there is something wrong with some politicians.”