Even those who do not recognize the name Aung San Suu Kyi have most likely heard her story. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she wasn’t able to collect her award, because for 15 years between 1989-2010 she was under house arrest due to her efforts to bring Democracy to Myanmar. This female icon however is now showing she may not be up to the task of governing, and thus has experienced a dramatic reversal of public opinion due to her inability or lack of desire to quell the religious violence plaguing Myanmar. She has an impressive pedigree and was born to Aung San, the man who led Myanmar (then called Burma) to independence from Britain. Although he was assassinated six months before the nation officially gained independence, he is widely hailed as a national hero. Just a toddler when he was killed, Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t get to grow up with her father, yet his rebellious streak was clearly inherited.
In September 1988, a new military junta took control of Burma, despite mass demonstrations for democracy which were supported by Aung San Suu Kyi. She then helped to found the National League for Democracy and was put under house arrest 10 months later. Burmese leaders offered her freedom in exchange for her leaving the country but she refused, though it meant being separated from her husband and two young sons. Even when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she remained in Burma, knowing that if she were to leave the country, she would never be allowed back in.
During her time spent under house arrest, she spent a great deal of time studying Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism. She practiced meditation, and wrote about how democracy and Buddhism were complementary. Since 88% of Myanmar practices Buddhism, this was especially compelling. For the time being, this was a unifying tactic; however, the religious breakdown of Myanmar would eventually result in chaos.
After her release, she reentered politics and her party won a great deal of seats in the 2012 election, and she became the leader of her party. Although forbidden from becoming president due to a legal technicality regarding the citizenship status of her sons, she wields a great deal of power. In 2015 her party won two thirds of the seats in parliament and in 2016 she was given the title “1st State Counsellor of Myanmar.” Although not formally the president, she is the de facto leader of Myanmar.
Her election was a momentous occasion marred by civil rights violations against the Rohingya Muslim minority. They are not recognized as citizens and thus not given the right to vote. And the crimes against the Rohingya certainty didn’t stop there. In late August of this year, members of a Muslim militant group attacked a police post, resulting in a brutal crackdown against the entire Rohingya population by Myanmar’s military. There are reports of random killings and the burning of whole villages. Although the militants have offered a ceasefire, Myanmar has said that it will not negotiate with terrorists and refused to accept. As of this week, an estimated 379,000 Rohingyas have fled the violence in Myanmar to Bangladesh.
Despite her power, Aung San Suu Kyi has not done anything to stop what has been described as ethnic cleansing. Some argue that she has no choice, and that she must avoid angering the powerful Myanmar military. However, with the international reputation as a woman of immense courage and sacrifice, it is hard to believe that she can do nothing to alleviate the plight of the Rohingya. It remains to be seen whether she will do anything to protect them, but hopefully she will act soon. As of now, an international reputation built up over decades of steadfast determination in the face of adversity now lies in shambles as she fails to protect the most desperate within her own country.