On February 1, Myanmar’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, performed a coup by detaining democratically elected members of Myanmar’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, and civil society activists. The detainees included State Counsellor and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The coup occurred a day before newly elected Members of Parliament from the 2020 general elections were to be sworn in.
The Tatmadaw has declared a year-long state of emergency, called for new elections to take place, cut off telecommunications, and declared Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing as leader. This has brought an end to civilian governance and put the military back in power.
There are years of complicated history at play here. However, the most peculiar and significant revelation is that the Commander-in-Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, is directly and credibly implicated in the humanitarian crimes committed against the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic cleansing that Suu Kyi stubbornly denies.
How does Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a global symbol of democracy, human rights, and non-violence, become a silent partner in one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises? Is she a non-violent freedom fighter or a war crime apologist?
In 2018, the UN released a report claiming that the military’s action against the Rohingya fits the legal definition of genocide, which is when violent acts are taken with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Within the span of four months after the militarization of the state of Rakhine in August 2017, where unarmed Rohingya civilians were targeted, the military and police forces reportedly killed hundreds, gang-raped women and girls, and forced roughly 700,000 people to flee to Bangladesh, making it the largest group of stateless people.
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, became an international symbol of peace by spending decades fighting the military-controlled government for democracy. She spent nearly fifteen years in house arrest as a political prisoner between 1989 and 2010 and founded the National League of Democracy party (NLD). The party won its first parliamentary election in 1990 by a landslide despite Suu Kyi’s arrest, which shocked the military government. It refused to recognize the victory and cracked down on the NLD. It was her stubborn dedication to non-violence during her fight for democracy that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
After being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 1990, Suu Kyi wrote, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it.” Little did we know that she herself would be haunted by these words and become the very leader that she fought against.
In 2000, she was placed under her second house arrest. This time, however, negotiations took place between her and the government. Two years later, she was released and government officials stated that Myanmar would enter a new era where the people could participate freely in politics. Her third and longest time served under house arrest was in 2003 after a pro-government attack on her that resulted in the death of four NLD bodyguards.
After her release in 2010, the NLD worked hard for the upcoming elections, and they won in a landslide victory by securing 43 of the 45 open seats in parliament in 2012. The 2015 election was the first openly contested general election in Myanmar in over twenty-five years, and again, they won with a landslide and became the ruling party. Suu Kyi became the de facto leader of the country.
After an attack on her motorcade in 1996 by nearly two hundred men in Yangon, the security forces did nothing to aid or stop the attack as it occurred. In response, Suu Kyi said, “It is surprising that they should ask [Suu Kyi and the NLD] to make concessions when it is the military regime that has arrested our people, and which is continuing to arrest our people illegally outside of the law, torturing them, imprisoning them and subjecting their families to much harassment and oppression.”
This situation is exactly what the military has been doing to the Rohingya population.
In the country’s 2008 constitution, the military became entitled to twenty-five percent of seats in parliament, regardless of the outcome of democratic elections. This makes it impossible to change the constitution or major systems of governance without the military’s approval. The military is not controlled by the executive and essentially operates independently. Only military officials can lead the Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs ministries, evading them from executive and legislative scrutiny.
Suu Kyi continues to defend the military’s violent actions against the Rohingya. The international community has looked to the Nobel Peace Prize winner to defend human rights in her country, even if she is unable to control the actions of the military, just like she has been for decades.
Instead, she criticizes the international response. In an exclusive interview with the BBC, she refused to acknowledge that ethnic cleansing is taking place and pushed back against the international criticism of her handling the crisis as the head of the civilian government. She said that she is “just a politician.” She was taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation into the textbook ethnic cleansing and genocide, yet violation of international law is not readily enforceable.
Why is a human rights advocate so vehemently denying the human rights violations taking place in her own country?One main reason is that, contrary to international criticism, the Buddhist majority within Myanmar hold little to no sympathy for the Rohingya and increased Suu Kyi’s popularity domestically for her stern response to other countries and the UN. The same woman that was arrested by the military and stated explicitly that they were violent against the NLD, called the generals in her cabinet “rather sweet.” She has also faced criticism for prosecuting independent journalists and activists, that she herself was once a victim too.
Aung San Suu Kyi has become the embodiment of the warning she wrote in 1990. Fear of losing power corrupts. She has turned her back on the very rights and principles she fought for and protected. Her example is a grim reminder of how the fight for liberty and freedom is constant and ongoing, and that no one—not even those with Nobel Peace Prizes—are above being corrupted.