Peace prize tarnished by silence over persecution

Peacemaker or not: Suu Kyi’s reputation on the line

There is the rhythm of poetry in her name, and for a generation Aung San Suu Kyi was the champion of democratic values in southeast Asia. Bravely she stood against a military regime that had controlled Burma since 1962.

Burma is a country in conflict, and even its name is subject of ideological dispute – many refusing to use the military’s preferred name: Myanmar.

Like many countries, Myanmar has a colonial past. The British held sway until the Second World War when the Japanese swept in. The Union of Burma emerged from the ruins of war as an independent country.

The negotiations with Britain were led by Aung San, regarded as the father of Burmese independence, although assassination ensured he did not live to see it. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, was only two when he died. Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford and worked with the Burmese-born Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, for three years.

The military-led one party state presided over the collapse of the Burmese economy. By 1988 outrage overwhelmed fear and the people took to the streets.

Suu Kyi was in the frontline. In the election of 1990 her party – the National League for Democracy – won overwhelmingly. The junta did what juntas do and declared the vote invalid. She was placed under house arrest, and her dignified defiance over the next two decades won admirers around the world.

Her advocacy for human rights has been lionised by many pivotal figures in global politics – Tutu, Mandela, Obama. Universities have showered her with honours, in 2012 she was invited to address both houses of Parliament at Westminster, she has been given the freedom of Dublin, and Bono has anointed her as one of his heroes.

“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity,” she has said. “It is a struggle that encompasses our political, social and economic aspirations.”

For her championship of democracy, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just a year after the election that propelled her into the international limelight.

Accepting the prize on her behalf, her son Alexander said: “This prize belongs not to her but to all those men, women and children who, even as I speak, continue to sacrifice their wellbeing, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a democratic Burma. Theirs is the prize and theirs will be the eventual victory in Burma’s long struggle for peace, freedom and democracy.”

Stirring words, and words fulfilled by the 2015 election when her party took the reigns of power. Constitutionally blocked from the presidency by her foreign marriage, she is now Burma/Myanmar’s State Counsellor – president in all but name – and leader of her nation.

That election was the end of a dream for all those who supported her through her trials. But that dream has become a nightmare for proponents of human rights around the world. A tide of human misery – hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims – has flooded neighbouring Banglashesh.

Suu Kyi’s silence in the face of such human misery was bad enough. Last week she resorted to the weasel words of discredited politicians when she said the world did not know what was happening because of “fake news”. A chilling phrase which is fast becoming the last refuge of the damned.

Condemning the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Desmond Tutu (also a Nobel laureate) said: “It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.

“If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”

The Buddhist majority in Burma does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens of their country, they have been systematically persecuted, and the emergence of Rohingya militants has been used by the military, and Buddhist activists, as an excuse to crack down on the beleaguered minority.

Suu Kyi is trapped by the military on one side who remain a potent force in the country, and her own supporters on the other who support the suppression of the Rohingya people.

As John F Kennedy once said, when caught on the horns of a dilemma, one must do what is right.

Suu Kyi must use her position as a voice for peace; she must demonstrate to her people and the world that human rights does not discriminate between peoples. Every day she fails to act she further tarnishes her reputation, and brings the Prize that saw her through years of persecution into disrepute.

  • This article first appeared in The Irish News on September 12 2017