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Is This the Real Aung San Suu Kyi?

The Nobel laureate has shocked the world by failing to speak up for persecuted minorities. Some believe she is showing her true colors.

Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

In early November, Zaw Lay and his family were hiding in the basement of a friend’s house in Yekhatchchaung GwaSone village, near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Two Burmese military helicopters circled overhead, firing indiscriminately at the terrified villagers huddled below. “The helicopters [didn’t] see us but they are firing continuously,” he recently told me over the phone, from a forest enclave in Bangladesh where he now lives. “We don’t [dare] go outside the home, if the helicopter men see us they will kill us.” Once the helicopters stopped their strafing, Burmese soldiers on the ground began burning the village to the ground. There was chaos when Zaw Lay fled, and he learned only later that his elderly mother had been trapped inside a burning building. “My mom’s dead,” he told me.

Rohingya Muslims like Zaw Lay are a small minority in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. They are becoming smaller still, thanks to a brutal campaign initiated in mid-October by the Burmese military. The spark for the violence came on October 9, when a Rohingya militia attacked a police outpost in northern Rakhine province, killing nine officers and seizing weapons and equipment. The military’s harsh reprisal campaign, designed to retrieve every gun stolen during the initial raid, is believed to have killed hundreds of Rohingya, and sent around 25,000 more fleeing into Bangladesh in what Amnesty International has termed “collective punishment.”

It is the type of appalling human rights situation that demands a strong voice for tolerance and equality. And Myanmar would appear to have such a figure in its paramount civilian leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. In his historic visit to Myanmar in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Suu Kyi for showing “unbreakable courage and determination” in her decades-long fight against the country’s military dictatorship, and in September of this year, during Suu Kyi’s first visit to the White House, Obama called for a lifting of U.S. sanctions to reward Myanmar for making democratic progress. But to the puzzlement of the world, and to the dismay of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has been silent on the military’s recent actions. Worse than that, her party has dismissed reports of mass slaughter as mere “fabrications.”

The world has waited a long time for Suu Kyi to address the Rohingya problem. She has been given the benefit of the doubt, out of deference to both her sterling human rights record and to the complex political landscape she must navigate for civilian rule to truly triumph over a military that still wields considerable power in Myanmar. But as the body count continues to mount, there is a dawning suspicion that there may be no objection forthcoming—that indifference is Suu Kyi’s final response to a human rights catastrophe unfolding in her country’s borderlands.

The latest reprisals against the Rohingya fit into a long pattern of persecution. For decades Burmese generals, hardline religious leaders, and politicians have argued that the Muslim Rohingya, who number around one million people and make up around 2 percent of Myanmar’s population, are Bengali interlopers intent on stealing the country and making it Muslim. Communal violence in 2012 led to hundreds of deaths, and forced 150,000 Rohingya to live in squalid internal displacement camps. Nonetheless, the situation for many Rohingya has gotten dramatically worse since the violence began two months ago. And there is disturbing evidence that the military’s campaign is more sweeping than previous pogroms.

Matthew Smith, chief executive at Fortify Rights, an NGO focused on human rights in Southeast Asia, is gathering testimony from Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh since October. “The situation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse for the Rohingya in the north,” he said. “We were talking with a group of people today, conducting interviews. In a group of 9 or 10, every single one had witnessed family members being killed, every single one coming from different villages. Seeing the same tactics employed in disparate locations indicates the systematic nature of what’s happening.”

The precise nature of the campaign is hard to verify, though Smith confirmed that many other Rohingya had also mentioned the military’s use of helicopter gunships against civilians in Yekhatchchaung GwaSone. The military has blocked rights groups and independent journalists from getting to the remote border-region where the violence is taking place. But witnesses who have fled to Bangladesh, as well as satellite imagery of burned-out Rohingya villages, tell a chilling story of widespread destruction of civilian areas. Though the Burmese military has described its actions as limited counter-insurgency operations to defeat Rohingya terrorists, Abu Siddiq, a Rohingya teacher, said there was nothing limited about the attack on his village a little over a month ago. “They always try to destroy us,” he told me, in a telephone interview from Bangladesh. (Like other Rohingya refugees quoted in this piece, he asked to be identified by an unofficial name to avoid military reprisals.)

Even before the attack, Siddiq said, life in Myanmar was impossible. In order to travel outside of his village, he had to receive special government papers. But papers issued by the police were considered invalid by the military, and vice-versa, meaning that he was in constant danger of being shot by someone in uniform who could accuse him of violating the law. He is worried about his relatives still caught up in the violence back home. “How can we live here?” he asked.

The Burmese military isn’t supposed to be launching assaults on civilian areas anymore. Last November, Myanmar held its first relatively free and fair democratic elections in generations. The National League of Democracy, the party led by Suu Kyi, triumphed in spectacular fashion over the party of the military, ending five decades of effective military rule. Suu Kyi’s party inherited many challenges: the world’s longest running civil war between the central government and a constellation of ethnic armed groups; an underdeveloped economy and education system; a meddling neighbor in China. But the biggest challenge of all was the continued power of the military. According to the Burmese Constitution, the military gets 25 percent of seats in parliament, controls key government ministries including the national police and border affairs, and can declare a national emergency and take back power from the civilian government.

Still, given how much progress had been made in the space of a few years, there was reason to hope that Suu Kyi would, slowly but surely, triumph over these obstacles and cement civilian control over government institutions. She is revered among the Burmese public for serving 15 years of house arrest in her struggle against military rule, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her unceasing advocacy for democracy. Though Suu Kyi herself was barred by the constitution from becoming president, she selected Htin Kyaw, a relatively undistinguished loyalist, to be president, and declared herself “above” the presidency. (Her official title is state counsellor, and she is treated like a head of state when she travels abroad.) She has had more success than anyone at facing down Burmese generals and is now Myanmar’s undisputed civilian leader.

But “The Lady,” as she is known in Myanmar, has been anything but steadfast when it comes to the Rohingya. In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi refused numerous opportunities to condemn a group of hardline monks who were spreading hatred against the country’s Muslims. Suu Kyi did not object when, before the 2015 election, election authorities decided that Rohingya Muslims would be summarily denied the right to vote. Her party even purged its party list of Muslim candidates, in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to defuse criticism from the country’s Buddhist hardliners.

And still, there was hope that this was mere election posturing, and that Suu Kyi would act on behalf of the Rohingya if her party won the election. That hope was quickly dashed; shortly after her party took power, the foreign affairs ministry advised foreign embassies to cease using the term “Rohingya,” which is unpopular among Burmese nationalists because it implies that the Rohingya are a legimitate ethnic group as opposed to Bengali infiltrators. “Unfortunately the argument that she’s staying silent or neutral in regards to Rakhine state based on political reasons has fallen flat,” said Smith of Fortify Rights.

Rights advocates say that her response to the most recent violence has been even more dispiriting. The president’s office called foreign media reports on the military’s brutality towards Rohingya “fabrications.” One of the ways Suu Kyi overturned military rule was to consistently challenge the military’s account of events, but when it comes to violence against Rohingya, she appears willing to accept them. “She knows everything,” said U Zaw Htay, a spokesman for Suu Kyi, about the military campaign. “The military has been briefing her on every important issue.”

“Her true colors are being shown based on how she thinks of Rakhine state, and those colors are very concerning,” said Smith. “She’s not only failing to prevent atrocities but she’s also denying atrocities are occurring.”

U Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer and activist who has been in and out of prison for decades thanks to the country’s military, said that he was deeply disappointed by Suu Kyi’s failures to stick up for Rohingya civilians. “She cannot do anything for us, she’s lying around the world,” he said, referring to a trip to Singapore in which Suu Kyi herself appeared to dismiss claims of abuse towards Rohingya as “fabrications.” He said Suu Kyi’s response also demonstrated how little power the civilian government has compared to the military: “Even though she’s head of state, head of country, she cannot visit Rakhine state,” where the violence is taking place.

State abuse towards Rohingya seems to be continuing. My Rohingya sources in Bangladesh keep sending me updates (including graphic photos) of Rohingya men they say have recently been killed in Myanmar, and Smith said he was also receiving similar reports. Although the response from Western governments remains muted, other countries in the region are paying notice. Myanmar’s Muslim-majority neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have raised the issue repeatedly with Suu Kyi. Nazib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, said the attacks against the Rohingya amounted to “genocide.”

Andrea Gittleman, a program manager for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that, after a proper investigation, the crimes against Rohingya could amount to genocide. Gittleman returned from a trip to Rakhine days before the most recent outbreak of violence. “Given the history and context and given reports [on the recent violence], we would be very concerned about the threat of genocide against the Rohingya,” she said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said his organization hadn’t yet decided how to classify the Burmese government’s reprisal violence. But in an email he emphasized the way the military had thrust Suu Kyi into a difficult political situation. “The intense dislike directed towards the Rohingya by the general population of Burma makes this kind of crackdown quite popular domestically,” Robertson wrote. “[Suu Kyi is] stuck between a rock and a hard place, with a military that she can’t control scoring political points by abusing rights of the Rohingya, and Suu Kyi being asked hard questions about why she can’t do something about it and stand up for human rights principles. So far, she has not handled the situation terribly well.”

In a Whatsapp message, Abu Siddiq, one of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, was more cutting about Suu Kyi’s handling of the situation. “If… Aung San Suu Kyi tries to solve the problem of Rakhine State, the problem will be easily solved. But she has not tried [to solve] the problem,” he wrote.

“Without trying to solve the problem, the problem will be solved? Impossible.”