A Rose into a Thorn in Burma

In the three years since Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, took power in Burma, I have waited patiently with the rest of the world to see what she might do, what change she might try to bring and how that change might be received. I have watched as a believer in global human rights, but for me, it has also been more personal.

My center, Human Rights Action Center (HRAC), along with hundreds of other NGOs inside and outside of Myanmar, and volunteers across the globe, spent over two decades fighting for her release. The effort was substantial. The campaign, financed and fought from all corners of the globe, was substantial. HRAC produced 36 videos; a film of 60 minutes of all her supporters in business, government, and music; iconic art work by Shep Fairey that became her image worldwide; a visit to see Aung San Suu Kyi in February of 1999; a concert in Bangkok on 9-9-99; and hundreds of visits to Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. We lobbied the White House, Congress and the State Department, to make her release a cornerstone of any US relationship with Burma. The list of professional, financial, grassroots, and personal contributions to this long campaign goes on and on.

And though it has only recently become the focus of international attention, the state-sponsored brutal war against Rohingya Muslims on the Burmese-Indian and Bangladesh border has also been ongoing for decades. Thousands have died. Women have been raped; families have  disappeared. Hundreds of Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground.

The election of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 stood as a beacon of hope for millions, not just within the Burmese borders, but to the outside world, and to oppressed peoples across the globe.  Though she herself was not permitted to take over as President, her party was in control. Change could not be far behind. Change, from the seat of government to political oppression of journalists to the end of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas, was sure to come.

Within a short time after this victory, she made the statement that she was no longer a human rights advocate, but a politician. She alerted the world to a change in her behavior, openly and directly.

For those of us that knew her history, this was a warning sign. The youngest daughter of the famed Burmese general, she was forced to flee Burma when he was assassinated in 1947. With her mother, she journeyed to England, where she was educated. She married, and had two children. She returned to her home country over twenty years later, first to care for her ailing mother, but quickly became a leading member fighting the iron fist of Burma's military dictatorship. She founded the NLD, and she began to fight. She was nothing if not sure of herself, nothing if not absolute. Nothing if not strong.

I visited her in February of 1999, with my partner, Feryal Gharahi. She was under house arrest at the time; her movements were tightly controlled, and she visited her party's headquarters as often as she could, to work with the resistance. Each time she did she risked her own life. Feryal, also not one to be deterred, waited for days on end at the NLD headquarters until the day when Aung San Suu Kyi finally visited. Hearing of that determination, she granted us a meeting.

In the half-hour that we spoke, she was powerful, quiet and determined. Her message, spoken quietly and insistently, was clear; “Stay united. Stay the course. We will win.” She was right. In 2010, she was finally released from house arrest and took her place in the government as a member of parliament in 2012.

But the fights along both of Burma's borders--particularly attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority--began to escalate in late 2015. The Rohingya, facing attacks by soldiers supported by the politically powerful Buddhist monks, began to flee to India and Bangladesh. The skirmishes that had continued on and off for nearly half a century escalated into wholesale genocide, a targeted campaign against the Rohingya Muslims supported by the government and powerful Buddhist monks. 

By this point, Aung San Suu Kyi had been appointed foreign minister. The human rights advocate that had protested civil and economic rights abuse, that had demanded better from her government and support from the world, faced a test. Her supporters outside of Burma waited impatiently for her to rally to this massive human rights abuse of the Moslem people. More Rohingya were killed each day.

She remained silent. Recently, Reuters journalists, namely Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were kidnapped and convicted in Burmese courts for their expression of a free press and the importance of coverage of the Rohingya abuses. They had visited the Rohingya villages at great risk and when the military discovered them, they were unlawfully arrested. Again, Suu Kyi failed to denounce the government.  Again, she failed to call for the release of these journalists, now political prisoners. 

Activists began removing her quotes and images from their walls. Angry human rights activists called for the revocation of her Nobel Prize. Students stopped hanging her poster on their walls.

My view on all this is not much different than others these days. My faith in the change she can bring has been chipped away, as villages have burned and stories have been smothered. There is one thing, though, that does bring me hope. I believe in the power of a civilian government, even though deeply flawed. Any move away from military rule, supported by the powerful lobbying of the Buddhist monks, is a move away from brutality in Burma. Any move toward further civilian control is a small beacon of hope.

I also feel more than disappointment, or regret. I feel fear for her life. For the life of a woman who has not been the savior we hoped for, a woman who is more than a lost symbol of liberty, but a complex, constrained, terrified yet powerful individual. My concern is this; if Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out about this issue forcibly, she will join the dead.

I ask myself what her options are; what she could do. She must address the serious and deep racism in the Burman majority. The military, supported by powerful monks, has been brutalizing the Rohingya for over half a century. Her first foray must be a campaign to grant Rohingyas citizenship. Without an offering of true citizenship for those Rohingyas who belong in Burma, there is little hope of changing the reality now. Unfortunately, an earnest campaign to do this could put her life in danger.

Our rose has become a thorn. Aung San Suu Kyi leads Myanmar now, not Burma. In Burma she was a human rights person. Now she is a politician; bound by the system she has chosen to join, by the failures and subjugation and brutality of that government. Constrained, disappointing, weak, in danger. Flawed. Human. But still, she is inching toward something that could be better.