There is no concealing the disappointment felt by many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters around the world in the face of her failure to denounce the attacks on Burmese Muslims by members of her own community, the Buddhists who constitute more than 90 percent of the population.
Perhaps she couldn’t stop it, people say, but at least she could have taken a stand. She is seen as the teacher, the mother of her nation; moral rebirth has been at the center of her mission ever since she signed up with the democracy movement; her most influential essay was titled “A Revolution of the Spirit.” How can she possibly stay silent as Muslims are slaughtered?
The first attacks came in June 2012, just as she was embarking on her first trip abroad in 24 years. A young Buddhist woman in Arakan state, which borders the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Bangladesh in the west, was raped and murdered by two Muslim men. In retaliation, a group of non-Muslim men stopped a bus and killed the Muslims on board, and the spiral of murder quickly got out of control. There were many victims on both sides, but the Muslims were in the majority. Thousands lost their homes and were resettled in squalid temporary camps.
Another even more serious wave of attacks came in October. Unlike June’s events, these were initiated by the majority community and closely coordinated, as a recent investigation by Human Rights Watch explained in detail. And although there have been no recent attacks as vicious or widespread as October’s, the fire has not burned out. Instead it has spread across the country. And still Suu Kyi holds her tongue.
How are we to explain it?
The glaringly obvious reason is that, upon her election to Parliament in April 2012, Suu Kyi became a politician. As Hillary Clinton presciently warned her a few months earlier, there is a world of difference between being an activist and being a politician. In the heyday of her activism, addressing crowds gathered outside her home in Rangoon in the mid-’90s, Suu Kyi happily teased and chastised the ruling military regime. Today she sits alongside them in Parliament: one quarter of the seats are occupied by unelected soldiers.
And not only does she have to share their space, she has to do business with them—serious business.
Burma is scheduled to hold general elections, followed by presidential ones (the president is elected by members of Parliament), in 2015. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, is the most popular in the country. If the elections are run fairly, like the by-elections in 2012 that brought her to Parliament, the NLD is likely to win by a landslide. But if they are rigged, like the general elections of 2010, that victory could be stolen. So between now and then she has two preeminent challenges: to retain the support of the great majority of her people and to persuade the generals who still hold power behind the scenes that she and her colleagues can be trusted.
There is a third challenge: to change the Constitution. Suu Kyi has made it clear in recent weeks that she hopes to become Burma’s president. But Section 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution requires that none of the children of a presidential candidate shall “be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country”—and both of Suu Kyi’s sons are British citizens. It appears that this requirement was written deliberately to bar her from the highest office. To remove it would require 75 percent support in Parliament. Until 2015, she is walking on eggshells.
Suu Kyi, then, has ample reason to choose her words with care. Her recent affectionate descriptions of the Army are examples of this. But why can’t she denounce something as grotesque as the attacks on Muslims?
There has been bad blood between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma for many years. In particular in Arakan state, the issue of large-scale illegal immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh has stoked riots and protests over the course of many years. Anti-Muslim prejudice is common even at the top of Suu Kyi’s party and among leading dissident activists. If Suu Kyi were to speak out, loud and clear, about the attacks, she would win the applause of people in the West. But it would be the quickest way for her to plummet in the approval of the Burmese masses.
Some believe that senior military figures hostile to her orchestrated the violence in Arakan state last year for precisely this reason: by goading Suu Kyi into speaking out on the issue, they hoped to destroy her popularity. If that is true, she has disappointed them—and proved, perhaps, that she can be as slippery a politician as the next one. That may not endear her to the West, but shrewdness is a necessary attribute of politicians everywhere—even those the world would prefer to regard as saints.