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In the new Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician who must choose sides carefully

AP Photo / Jeremy Russell
Why can’t she be more like him? He’s a pacifist, she’s a politician.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

With Burma open again for business, international investors will no doubt be interested in the projects such as producing gas from the Shwe fields and transport it by building pipelines. If shipped efficiently, the gas can power the booming markets of India and China, besides meeting domestic needs in Burma.

But the pipelines inevitably pass through the Rakhine province (formerly Arakan), the site of vicious Buddhist-Rohingya violence since June this year. Investors cannot ignore the violence, and nor can they expect the military, or other security forces, to protect their facilities without potential problems; other oil companies that have depended on Burmese military for security have faced international lawsuits over human rights abuses. As investors look at promising sectors like oil and gas in Burma, now known as Myanmar, they will have to negotiate metaphorical and literal minefields.

Rohingyas are Muslim by faith. Under Burma’s disputed 1982 law, Rohingyas are not recognized as citizens or as a minority within the Burmese union, and many of their rights are restricted, including the right to marry. (Rohingyas form a minority within Burma’s Muslims, who account for 4% of Burma’s population of an estimated 54 million. Buddhists account for nearly 90%; Christians account for another 4%.) Burmese President Thein Sein has said that any country willing to take the Rohingyas is welcome to do so. After violence spread this summer, Rohingyas began fleeing Burma for neighboring Bangladesh, which threatened to seal its border, sparking a spirited debate within Bangladesh, given its own tragic history– in its own war of independence in 1971, millions of Bangladeshis fled, and they found refuge in India.

Governments around the world have condemned the violence, and human rights groups have called upon Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s opposition leader, to use her moral influence to stop the violence. She has demanded that the president re-establish the rule of law. But in response to questions during her recent visit to India, she said there has been violence on both sides—the Rohingyas and the Buddhists—each has a case to answer.

Suu Kyi’s response has disappointed human rights groups. But unlike pacifists like the Tibetan leader Dalai Lama or the leader of India’s freedom movement Mohandas Gandhi, Suu Kyi is a politician, and as she walks the tightrope towards presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, she has to be adroit, by retaining her support and remaining committed to her principles. It is not an easy task, as Nelson Mandela discovered in the early 1990s.

During her years of house arrest in Burma’s capital, Rangoon, now called Yangon, Suu Kyi was the icon of democracy. Human rights activists had campaigned continuously for her release and supported her struggle to establish democracy in Burma. For the rock group U2, Bono wrote a song about her which they played all over the world. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Prize and the European Parliament honored her with the Sakharov Prize. Her supporters cheered her release from prison more than a year ago and watched as she took firm steps regrouping her party, the National League for Democracy, and after her party won 43 of the 45 seats up for by-elections in April this year, the Burmese fairy tale was taken for granted: the princess will reclaim her rightful place.

But her response to the violence in the Rakhine province has dimmed the halo around her, although she has neither instigated nor condoned the violence. Hundreds have died in the violent incidents this year, tens of thousands have been displaced, and thousands of homes have been destroyed. Both sides have used violence this time, but satellite imagery made available by Human Rights Watch shows vast areas where Rohingyas live, have been destroyed. Suu Kyi has said that the issue needs to be examined properly, and joined other opposition parties in issuing a statement calling upon the government to establish the rule of law.

Human rights groups are perplexed and privately angry that Suu Kyi is acting like a politician, and not as the democracy icon they have recognized her to be. They have urged her, in public and private, to speak out to stop violence. And she has condemned violence on both sides, and wants a thorough investigation.

Through her life, through her writing, through her remarks in public, Suu Kyi has revealed her compassion and commitment for human rights. It must be remembered although it is self-evident that she is not the president of Burma—she is a member of Parliament, and her party’s strength, at 43 seats, is less than 8% of the number of seats in the Parliament. If she issues any statement, it can only have moral force; it is not going to change the way the Burmese government or the army, known as tatmadaw, operates.

If she unequivocally calls for peace, it would enhance her reputation among western democrats and liberals, but they don’t have a vote in Burmese elections, due in 2015. Most analysts expect the NLD to sweep the polls, but if she appears to be siding with the Rohingyas, it will erode her support among some hardline nationalist Burmese voters including Buddhist monks who do like her, don’t like the generals but don’t like the Rohingyas either. If her party emerges with a small majority, it would reduce her leverage to make fundamental changes to Burma’s constitution. And those changes are necessary to strengthen democracy, rule of law, and judicial oversight in Burma. Under current laws, for example, it is questionable if she can even become Burma’s president–in one of the mean-spirited changes the generals made to Burmese laws in the past two decades, they outlawed Burmese nationals who had married foreigners from holding public office. Suu Kyi is a widow; her husband was the British Himalayan scholar Michael Aris. That law will need to change, and perhaps that’s the time also to look at the question of Rohingyas’ nationality.

Some of her critics point to the examples of the Dalai Lama or Gandhi, who were uncompromising in their commitment to non-violence. Why can’t Aung San Suu Kyi act like them? But the fact is that neither Gandhi nor the Dalai Lama ever claimed to be a politician–Suu Kyi has been a politician since she joined the Burmese struggle for democracy in the late 1980s.

If there is a comparison to be made, it is Mandela. After his  release from the prison on Robben Island, between 1990 and 1994, there was widespread violence between Mandela’s party—the African National Congress—and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, of chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Hundreds of South Africans died in a conflict whose sole purpose was to establish firm positions before the first democratic elections in South Africa, which took place in 1994. In spite of many calls from international leaders and organizations, Mandela was either quiet or ineffective in stopping the violence. The ANC was the victim and the perpetrator, but that hasn’t dimmed the glow around Mandela.

Suu Kyi has never advocated violence. The NLD, of course, has remained steadfastly committed to non-violence, and it has no role in the Buddhist-Rohingya violence. Suu Kyi is a realist, a politician who understands the art of the possible. She is joining a chess game already far advanced, where she has limited strength and must move wisely.

The responsibility of ending violence rests with the government of Burma. But Suu Kyi can help by reminding the government of its obligation to protect the rights of everyone within its territory. The Burmese fairy-tale has not reached its end yet. As she warned during US President Barack Obama’s visit last week, “the mirage of success” shouldn’t lull anyone into complacency. “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she said. Those outside Burma who wish to see it rapidly transform into a democracy better remember that it remains a balancing act.

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