Suu Kyi's changing face
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been a relatively silent witness to what is being considered as the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis, with hundreds and thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Risking death by sea or on foot, more than half a million have fled persecution in the northern Rakhine state, since August 2017. The government understands the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. This intrigues even seasoned Myanmar observers who are finding it hard to describe the impact of this large-scale genocide. The campaign against the minority Muslims has been on for decades. And, now, even the familiar and friendly Western powers, who had stood by the once brave and charismatic leader, cannot come to terms with the fact that she refuses to budge even as this critical humanitarian catastrophe keeps worsening. Her silence is both deafening and mystifying. Not too long ago, when she was a defiant leader and under house imprisonment, she was sense and sensibility personified. She propagated equal rights and justice for all. Her concern was for the commonest of denominators. Confined to imprisonment in her house by Lake Innya on the University Avenue, she would cite lessons from the latest research on both economics and human rights. She was a picture of grit, determination and defiance even against all odds. During that phase, she was the recipient of an array of international recognitions, including even the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is another story that she could not leave Myanmar to receive any of the awards because the militia would not allow her back. But the Western World was with her and the then ruling dispensation would not risk doing anything beyond keeping her confined to her house under armed surveillance. But, when she was eventually declared free and expectedly won the elections by a landslide margin, what happened to this angel of peace who had even been compared to Joan of Arc for being so gutsy in spite of appearing so frail? It is hardly surprising that some of her closest well-wishers from the West are now thoroughly disillusioned with her noncommittal stand on the brutality being perpetrated on the minority Muslims. World bodies have termed this as ethnic cleansing. Some have gone so far as to demand that she be divested of the Nobel Prize. That will not happen, but the disillusionment with her transformation is complete. The arrest and subsequent 14 years jail sentence for two Reuters correspondents who had discovered a mass grave has shocked the world. Worse still, Bangladesh has declared that the Rohingyas that have arrived seeking shelter in makeshift camps would be returned to Myanmar within a maximum period of two years. The refugees from Myanmar refuse to return to the nightmare that they had fled from by risking their lives. Indeed, how much of torture, burning of houses, rape and worse can they withstand? What is Suu Kyi scared of? That she has no option other than to remain a puppet in the hands of the armed forces? Interestingly, Myanmar's military says it is fighting Rohingya militants and denies ever targeting civilians. In 2012, more than 20 years after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi had delivered her acceptance speech in Oslo. She had said the prize "had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma [Myanmar]." "Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities and faith in its future can be founded only on a true spirit of union," she said, before reading some of her "favourite passages" from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "Ultimately, our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary, where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace." They were the words of someone who, for many years, was hailed as the heroine of the human rights community. From the early 1990s until her final release from house arrest in 2010, she was a brave symbol of defiance against what was then a brutal military dictatorship. Incidentally, when she won a landslide election victory, hundreds of thousands of people, including the Muslim Rohingyas, were not allowed to vote, and no voting took place in seven areas where ethnic conflict was rife. Suu Kyi could no longer defer responsibility to the government. Her stock response before the 2015 election was that it was a problem for the leadership to solve. Now, she has to prove she is willing to deal with it.