Do you remember how we used to write about Aung San Suu Kyi?
“She is driven by the courage to believe that human society can be built on moral principles,” Joanna Pitman wrote in a 1996 profile. ”The face now known to millions across the world is luminously beautiful, a strong face made of small, strong bones with the regularity of feature of a fine ivory carving. The smooth, pale skin is set with huge dark, liquid eyes like lustrous black grapes.”
So it was a bit jarring to see those lustrous black grapes staring unblinkingly on Wednesday from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Ms. Suu Kyi gave a speech defending the principles of the Myanmar military – the same military that had kept her under house arrest for two decades – against accusations that it has committed mass humanitarian atrocities that many believe constitute a genocide.
The larger issue is not whether the court’s legal definition of “genocide” describes the mass expulsion and persecution of the Rohingya – the largest ethnic group in Rakhine for a century and a half, but one of the few non-Buddhist communities in Myanmar. What has been thoroughly documented is that the military, after Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto prime minister in 2015, murdered, tortured or raped tens of thousands of citizens in the northwestern Rakhine State because of their Rohingya identity and Muslim religion, burned down hundreds of villages and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing into Bangladesh, where they are not welcome.
She did not deny that some “disproportionate force” may have been used by the military during “clearance operations,” which she described as routine acts to remove an insurgency – but these were matters to be dealt with in Myanmar courts. She barely mentioned the Rohingya, and said nothing of the plight of almost a million of her citizens who had been forced into foreign refugee camps.
How did we wind up with this sort of disingenuous cover from the activist whose 1990 “Freedom From Fear” speech has become one of the great documents of human rights? Ms. Suu Kyi has spoken and written millions of words about the need for a free and democratic society. She said less about the identity of a democratic Myanmar, and what she did say didn’t always conform to her image as a liberal pluralist.
Shortly after she arrived in the country then known as Burma in 1988, to support a democracy uprising that would soon be crushed by the military – she was already famous as the daughter of the man who freed the country from British colonialism in the 1940s – she made it clear, to the few who bothered asking, that she fully supported the army’s ambitions, if it would just get its hands off the levers of state.
“I do not have the hostility towards the army that a lot of people have now in Burma because I have always had contacts with the armed forces – after all, my father was a member,” she said a few months after settling. “In a sense, I was brought up to look at members of the armed forces as allies rather than as enemies. This feeling has never gone away.”
That military’s ambitions would soon be apparent. Burma is an artifice, a patchwork quilt of scores of tiny kingdoms and tribal areas knit together awkwardly by colonial occupiers. In the 1980s, the military junta was fighting a dozen small but expensive wars against ethnic insurgent armies. In the 1990s, it began making peace deals, granting ethnic groups regional autonomy in exchange for disarmament.
But not the Rohingya. In 1992, the military, with the support of local Buddhist-extremist groups, launched a brutal crackdown against them, killing thousands and sending hundreds of thousands fleeing. A few observers then noticed that Ms. Suu Kyi, in speeches and interviews, had said nothing about this.
Her silence became more noticeable in 2012, when mass persecution of the Rohingya began again, and she was once again silent, dodging any questions about the subject. By 2012, Ms. Suu Kyi was no longer a dissident, but a politician running for office, in a country where extreme Buddhist nationalism had become the dominant popular ideology. She has secured 51 peace deals with Buddhist ethnic insurgencies – but she gave the military carte blanche to have their way with the Rohingya, and has done little to secure their return.
She will face a tough re-election campaign next year, and several Myanmar analysts have pointed out that her defensive stance in The Hague will cement her support among the key Buddhist-chauvinist electorate. It may look like a betrayal, but her political principles have been consistent from the beginning.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.