The rose that revealed her thorns

She who once represented the hope of democracy now speaks the tongue of the military. The youth of Myanmar tell Sonia Sarkar how bitterly disappointed they are in Aung San Suu Kyi

By Sonia Sarkar
  • Published 9.09.18
Unravelling: A protest against Aung San Suu Kyi during the Asean-Australia special summit earlier this year 
Picture Credit: AFP

There is an animation clip on Aung San Suu Kyi's verified Facebook page. Titled, "The Real Disaster in Burma is the government", it is the first thing that catches one's attention.

It shows a Burmese girl who survives, first the cyclone, and then the starvation and diseases that followed. But then follow visuals of heavy military boots closing in on the little girl. The male voice-over artiste says in clipped British accent - "In Burma, there are no fairy-tale endings, because the government and military dictatorship torture and kill people..." At the end of the clip, the same voice urges people to bring human rights and democracy to erstwhile Burma, now Myanmar. It urges, "Please use your freedom to gain theirs."

The animation is 10 years old.

Ten years ago, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Since her return from the UK in 1988, she had been a vociferous critic of the military government. The 15-year house arrest, beginning in 1989, was a consequence.

Welcome to 2018. Suu Kyi looks just the same. Everything about her appears the same too, that attire, the rose in bun, the stoic Mona Lisa smile. And yet if she is unrecognisable, it is because of her hugely altered political stance. She speaks more in favour of the military now, less for the people. And, of course, she is Myanmar's de facto leader.

The whole world is witness to this transformation. And now, the people of Myanmar who once vowed to turn a blind eye to all failures of their beloved "Amay Suu", have begun raising a collective voice against her. Students, writers, artists, cartoonists and civil rights activists have started to revolt. Their complaint: she has done nothing to stop the army's violence against Rohingyas in Rakhine state on the western coast of the country.

Rohingyas have been subjected to state violence for years in Rakhine. They have fled to Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, from time to time, for survival. But in August last year, over seven lakh Rohingyas were forced to leave their homes as the country's armed forces allegedly burnt their villages, raped women and even implanted landmines to kill them. Suu Kyi was steadfast in her refusal to recognise this persecution. She has even denied that Rohingyas are indigenous people of Myanmar.

Eaint Thiri Thu, an MA student at the United States University of Minnesota, keeps a close eye on developments in her country. She says, "Aung San Suu Kyi is accountable for denying crimes against humanity and for covering up the extra-judicial abuses of the military. She is also accountable for providing wrong information to the public about the Rohingya crisis."

Thiri Thu is away from her country but now, even those in Myanmar are saying enough is enough. An open letter issued some months ago by a Yangon-based civil rights forum called Saddha: Buddhists For Peace, reads, "We kept faith in the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership, hoping that she could finally bring Burma out of military rule. Now, by their wilful inaction, she and the NLD have become complicit in this violence against Rohingya civilians carried out by Myanmar security forces, which the United Nations has called 'textbook ethnic cleansing' and 'acts of genocide'."

Yangon-based Thinzar Shunlei Yi, former president of Yangon Youth Network and advisor at Burma's National Youth Congress, says Suu Kyi is now acting as a shield for the military. "But we, the people of this country, are taking note of it," adds Shunlei Yi, who is one of the 77 signatories to the open letter.

Suu Kyi's sympathisers argue that the army still controls law enforcement, local administration and embattled frontier areas. They point out that she doesn't have any real power. But Thiri Thu retorts, "She should have separated herself from the military. She should have tried to receive the right information." Chu May Paing, a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says, "We had high hopes from her but the longstanding ethnic conflicts and the Rohingya issue frustrated us. Either as a 'state counsellor' or as 'puppet' in the hands of the Myanmar army, she cannot escape her responsibilities on the issue."

Suu Kyi is a state counsellor. She can't be President as no one with dual-citizen relations (including parents or children) can be president as per the Constitution of the country.

A satirical website, Burma Tha Din Network, had put up a post about how the Suu Kyi holding office currently is actually a clone created by Russian geneticists. The real Suu Kyi, according to it, is in captivity and wondering - how the hell can people believe I'd do that?

Cartoonists who once took jibes at the military junta are now taking potshots at Suu Kyi and her authoritarian ways. In one of his cartoons, Maung Maung Fountain shows two boys wearing the traditional gaung baung worn by men on formal occasions and at parliamentary sittings, complaining to their bossy older sister - "You told us what you want, but when we said what we wanted you got angry."

Suu Kyi has failed on other fronts too. The worsening civil war in Shan and northern Kachin and the flailing economy. Says social scientist Htuu Lou Rae, "Plus, foreign investment and tourism are reeling from the crisis in northern Rakhine." The world is not oblivious to these things. In a paper titled "Interpreting Communal Violence in Myanmar", Australian author Nick Cheesman writes, "...the new government has, like its predecessor, been criticised for inaction, anti-Muslim prejudice and restricting journalists' access to affected areas."

Suu Kyi didn't allow Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, to visit the Rakhine state last year. The media is barred from using the word "Rohingyas". And the government recently published the book, Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part I, whose thrust is: there are no Rohingyas in Myanmar. They are the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There have also been fake news doing the rounds about how Rohingyas are Islamist militants and mosques in Yangon are stockpiling weapons in an attempt to blow up various Buddhist pagodas. In 2016, when a Rohingya woman provided detailed allegations about her gang rape, the State Counsellor Office Information Committee posted a banner on its Facebook page that read "Fake Rape".

Even her own party members are disappointed. Maung Sangkha, a youth leader of NLD, who joined the party in 2012, says, "She should have admitted there is a problem... She should have gone and checked the situation in the areas where violence took place." Sangha, who is also the executive director of Myanmar-based ATHAN, a freedom of expression activist organisation, fears he will be fired soon for openly criticising Suu Kyi.

Young people like Sangkha were a big votebank for NLD in 2015. That year, voters between 20 and 39 years exceeded 50 per cent of the total registered voters. Says young Shunlei Yi, "And now it feels like we have lost a political leader we looked up to. There is a vacuum."