By Alan Davis
19 September 2017
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi’s PR account might as well
have been managed by Bell Pottinger in recent weeks. Pro-democracy icons and
Nobel peace prize-winners are not supposed to have hearts of stone and turn out
to be, well, racist. They certainly aren’t supposed to be de facto leaders of
countries charged with ethnic cleansing.
Speaking for the first time on the
targeting and displacement of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority on
Tuesday, Aung San Suu Kyi told Myanmar’s parliament that “There have been
allegations and counter-allegations … We have to make sure those allegations
are based on solid evidence before we take action.” It was an attempt at
catch-up – and yet it is likely that the move to speak came as a result of a
huge flurry of diplomatic activity and pressure from international donors
rather than from personal inclination. Her behaviour was the same in January,
when she was silent for days after the assassination of Ko Ni, her own party’s
top lawyer and constitutional adviser, who just happened to be a Muslim.
Of course, she remains in a hugely
difficult position, a secular leader in a nation still dominated by its
military. Yet all leaders in transitional states face balancing a multitude of
interests and factions as they map out the best way forward. The Myanmar army,
the Tatmadaw, retains huge influence and power across the country – but so too
does Aung San Suu Kyi herself.
And she has not simply been silent too long
on the immediate situation faced by the Rohingya. She has also failed to speak
out against the growing number of villages in Myanmar that have been putting up
“No Muslims” signs, alongside other instances of hate speech and prejudice. My
own organisation, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, documented these
as part of a two-year project that has just finished there.
Allow hate speech to thrive, absent
yourself from any kind of moral leadership, and you must surely expect to reap
the whirlwind. So it is not as if Aung San Suu Kyi can – or should – escape a
degree of blame. To those who might argue that she is doing the best she can
under the circumstances, the rejoinder has to be: for whom? The majority
Buddhist Bamar, or the whole country?
Given her longstanding ties to Britain,
criticism in this country has been particularly loud. The foreign secretary,
Boris Johnson, urged her to use the “moral capital” she has built up to stop
the persecution. Aung San Suu Kyi – the Lady, the Iron Butterfly, a Nobel
laureate, a pro-democracy icon and the Nelson Mandela of Myanmar – has turned
out to be very different indeed from her South African counterpart.
But just like Mother Teresa of Kolkata,
Aung San Suu Kyi has probably been held in too high regard by too many people
for too long. More than Mother Teresa, or Princess Diana even, Aung San Suu Kyi
had legions of fawning diplomats, journalists and celebrities queuing up to
meet her over the years.
I have been a fan since I first went to
Myanmar in 1991, when it was completely isolated internationally and few had
heard of or cared for her. I was briefly detained at Insein jail for taking
photos on the day of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in 2010. But I have been
unnerved by the adoration heaped upon her over the years.
A London-born and Bangkok-based
photographer friend of mine, Nic Dunlop, took one of the most iconic
photographs of her, in black and white, looking sideways with her arms folded
across her white blouse. It’s a brilliant photo – but a disconcerting symbol.
How much did we in the UK, and the wider international community, help create
the legend of the Lady, whose every word was a BBC sound bite, and who could do
Lest we forget, she has always been her
father’s daughter. General Aung San founded the Tatmadaw and led his country to
independence, though he was assassinated before it was finally achieved. This
probably explains why there is a certain air of entitlement about her – and it
comes across not just in her demeanour. It has long been known that she rules
her party, the National League for Democracy, in a somewhat dictatorial style.
Do we, then, bear some degree of
responsibility for the situation today? Are we partly to blame for putting her
on a pedestal and not asking enough of her? Quite possibly. For the past 25
years or so, Myanmar has been boiled down to a simple dilemma of the Lady
against the generals. Free Aung San Suu Kyi, went the story, and all would be
I remain an admirer, and can only imagine
how any of us might change, fold or buckle under the kind of pressures she has
been subject to. The woman who became, aged 70, state counsellor of Myanmar is
not Mandela – but who really is? There is a lesson here for the media, civil
society, diplomats, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and even U2. It is that we
cannot afford to rely on simple narratives. To do so is to risk being
unprepared for often messy realities. In order to truly secure freedom and
democracy – and to protect human rights – we need a whole lot more than
• Alan Davis is Asia and Eurasia director of the Institute for War and
Peace Reporting and recently completed a two year anti-hate speech monitoring
project in Myanmar
“To do so is to risk being unprepared for often
messy realities. ….. and to protect human rights – we need a whole lot more
The reality is that Nobel Prize is no Noble symbol.
To join the word Peace with Nobel is to degrade both noble and peace. Barring a
very few noble souls; the majority recipients of the prize, as does Suu Kyi, use it for their own PR and promotion.
To connect her name with Mother Teresa and Nelson
Mandela is to humiliate the two.