Luc Besson’s 2011 film The Lady is a heartfelt tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, a humble stay-at-home mother who returned to Burma only to become caught up in political turmoil. Her relationship with her husband and their ultimate sacrifice for the people of Burma plays out in performances by Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis, which touched hearts of audiences all over the world — not least in Burma, where love for “the Lady” or “Auntie Suu” was unshakeable.
Or so it seemed.
Once a beacon of hope and the symbol of a nation’s movement towards freedom, dignity and democracy, the narrative around Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be changing. People are no longer blinded by the light; now that Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being a martyr under house arrest to a politician with a seat in the country’s Parliament, things are looking very different indeed.
Last month she was confronted by farmers from villages in central Burma protesting against the opening of a copper mine in their area. She also shocked many by expressing her “fondness” for the army; while she said it was because she still thought of them as “her father’s army,” to most people in Burma the army cannot be separated from the oppressive military junta that has ruled them for decades.
Perhaps the most serious criticism of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is her failure to speak out against violent conflict within Burma, from the ongoing civil war between the Kachin ethnic minority and the government to sectarian violence in Rakhine State last year and, most recently, in the central Burmese town of Meiktila.
The fighting in Meiktila reveals to the world a disturbing continuation of anti-Muslim sentiment within Burma, similar to that seen in Rakhine State, where Muslim Rohingyas are still being persecuted and denied humanitarian aid. Reports speak of a “969 Campaign” against Muslims led by revered Buddhist monks, who are distributing anti-Muslim materials and encouraging boycotts of Muslim businesses. A video has surfaced on Facebook showing the well-known Buddhist monk Wirathu giving an incendiary anti-Muslim speech, encouraging Burmese citizens to act in the name of “nationalism.”
Violence broke out in Meiktila after a disagreement between the Muslim owner of a gold shop and his Buddhist customers escalated. At least 20 people — many of them Muslims — lost their lives, and bodies were burnt in the streets. A state of emergency has been declared, and the military has moved in, but reports say that security personnel are doing very little to stop the persecution of Muslims.
Throughout all this strife Aung San Suu Kyi has said little beyond urging the Mandalay police chief to “act in accordance to the law.” For many Burmese watching the violence unfold, it is simply not enough.
Shine, a Burmese Muslim, says he is most disappointed with her hesitance in taking a strong stand against these kinds of riots and violent clashes in the country. “She always used to talk about the ‘rule of law,’ … but when she got that position to be head of the Rule of Law Committee, what is she doing? What is her action?” he asks.
Her failure to speak out strongly against the violence in Meiktila is made even more discomforting after the Euro-Burma Office circulated an email alleging that members of her party, the National League for Democracy, have been involved in “anti-Muslim disturbances.” If these claims are true, it would be even more unacceptable for Aung San Suu Kyi not to take a strong stand against the perpetuation of violence against Muslims in Burma.
This is not the first time she has disappointed her would-be supporters. When violence first broke out in Rakhine State between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was also reluctant to take a strong stand. Writing for Al Jazeera English, journalist Francis Wade speculated on the reasons for her hesitation: speaking up for the Rohingya would anger and alienate many Burmese voters who do not see the Rohingya as an ethnic minority in the country but as illegal immigrants.
Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer just a symbol, locked away under house arrest. Now that she is released and in Parliament, she seems to be playing politics like everyone else. It’s an unwelcome revelation for many Burmese who have seen her as a staunch defender of human rights and dignity.
“As a global symbol of democracy and human rights defender, she should be clear with her moral standpoint and speaking out against human rights abuses happening across the country,” Shin Thant, a Burmese student, said. “Morality should rule over political gain or loss.”
Opinion is divided as to Aung San Suu Kyi’s current popularity in Burma. Shine states with confidence that she has “already lost more that half of her supporters in the country,” but Shin Thant is not so sure: “Many people still have hope that she could do something to develop the country.”
To be fair, one cannot lay all the blame at Aung San Suu Kyi’s door. One woman all by herself was never going to be able to bring freedom and democracy to a country in the grip of a military dictatorship, and to expect her to do so would be unreasonable. Much of the current disappointment has also come from the way that she has — not by her own doing — become larger-than-life in the public consciousness after years of house arrest. In many ways, the Burmese people have seen her as a martyr of their cause, but now the martyr has re-entered public space and shown herself to be all too mortal.
“The category ‘martyr’ and the category ‘politician’ shouldn’t be in a same person,” said Phyo Win Latt, a board member of the Institute of Alternative Histories and Popular Culture, an organization that promotes the study of local histories, arts and culture in Burma and Southeast Asia. “Democracy needs a culture where it can thrive. It doesn’t need a goddess or an angel of democracy. Too much energy and attention is being paid to Aung San Suu Kyi without nurturing liberal and democratic values.”
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