The Deafening Silence
The world came to know Aung San Suu Kyi through her fearless campaign for the democratization of Myanmar. She is the former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner who emancipated her country after nearly 50 years of military rule.
So when, in August of this year, the military retaliated against an overnight attack on one of their army bases by undertaking what has since been described by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya, it seemed only a matter of time before Suu Kyi would intervene.
But as the days and weeks passed, to the world’s astonishment, she said nothing.
The only thing more deafening than her initial silence were the howls of condemnation from all sides. She’s been stripped of various honours, described by Human Rights Watch as “complicit” and “part of the problem”, and by Bob Geldof as a “handmaiden to genocide”.
This week, fresh evidence of horrific crimes committed against the Rohingya featured in Gabriel Gatehouse’s film for BBC Newsnight. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for an independent investigation. Next week, Pope Francis will visit Myanmar and the Rohingya’s swollen and diseased refugee camps in Bangladesh. He has allegedly been asked not to use the word “Rohingya”.
It is unquestionable that we are witnessing the state-sanctioned persecution of a distinct ethnic group. It certainly looks like ethnic cleansing, and the execution of the villagers of Tula Toli bears the hallmarks of genocide – a crime under international law.
But at the centre of it all, Aung San Suu Kyi remains passive, impervious and cryptic. “I have not been silent… what people mean is what I say is not interesting enough,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “What I say is not meant to be exciting, it’s meant to be accurate… not set people against each other.”
What is going on?
Explanations are not easy to come by. Even those that seek to explain her position rarely cross the line into defending it. But tellingly, every attempt to do so cites the same fundamental problem for Suu Kyi: the structure of the very constitution that restored her to public life and democracy to Myanmar.
The Myanmar Constitution
Myanmar’s military: The power Aung San Suu Kyi can’t control
‘The military junta, which ruled the country with an iron fist from 1962 until 2011 […] still controls the security forces, the police and key cabinet positions in the government. And there’s nothing Suu Kyi can do about it.
In the Constitution, the role of the commander-in-chief — who is the ultimate military authority — often overrides that of the President. Along with nominating military candidates for seats in both houses of parliament, the Constitution also allows the commander-in-chief, in the event of a state of emergency “the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power”.’
The threat of military coup
In defense of the tragic, impotent silence of Aung San Suu Kyi
‘Few have bothered to dig into the deeply complex political minefield that is modern Myanmar. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, despite winning the country’s 2015 poll in a landslide with almost 80 percent of the vote, are very much the junior, powerless partners in an invidious power sharing arrangement that seems to have so easily tricked the rest of the world.
All of this is part of a trap that Suu Kyi has found herself in, possibly willingly a first, set by the generals. Sanctions have been taken off by the West, investment has poured in, military chiefs are welcomed in western capitals, yet the generals still run the place and conflict continues apace. Now, the generals appear to be actively determined to tear her reputation down and make her stand by helplessly watching.’
Her invisible actions
Myanmar Cardinal Defends Aung San Suu Kyi on Eve of Pope Trip
‘[Cardinal Charles Bo, Myanmar’s Catholic cardinal, has said] “Aung Sung constitutionally has no voice to say anything to the military. And she is in her own clever way trying to negotiate with the military so there will be cooperation between the government and the military.”
‘International criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi, including by the U.N. leadership, U.S, European Union and even some of her fellow Nobel laureates, is “very unfair,” Bo said.
“Time will prove that she has her own agenda of moving the country toward democracy,” he said.’
In defense of Aung San Suu Kyi
‘“It is clear that the military want to drive out Muslim people from these areas but [Suu Kyi’s] government has not allowed it to do so,” Sithu Aung Myint, a prominent political commentator based in Yangon, told Quartz.
‘The military also has the backing of the Arakan National Party (ANP), a nationalist, anti-Rohingya organization that has the most seats in the Rakhine State parliament. “ANP has same idea as the military,” Sithu Aung Myint said. “They also want to drive out Muslim people, and they accuse that all Muslims are migrants from Bangladesh.”
‘Despite all her failings, according to this version of events, Suu Kyi may be all that stands between the Rohingya and an all-out genocide.’
To wrap up…
On this reading, the very constitution that liberated Suu Kyi and her country from military rule contains within it a latent, near-Damoclean threat of a return to the junta. It seems plausible that, as a result, she fears any condemnation from her will result in more harm being caused to a much greater number of people.
In light of this, it’s worth revisiting the statement she made back in September when she first broke her silence on the crisis:
“After half a century or more of authoritarian rule, now we are in the process of nurturing our nation. We are a young and fragile country facing many problems, but we have to cope with them all. We cannot just concentrate on the few.”