For more than 20 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has stood as a human rights icon. Known as "The Lady," she was admired and respected around the world as she endured house arrest and the repression of Myanmar’s military government.
Myanmar’s de facto leader has received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has been showered with honorary degrees and memberships.
Now there’s a petition to revoke her Nobel (the Nobel committee says that’s not possible) and a growing chorus of criticism. Even fellow Nobel laureates, including the Dalai Lama, retired Bishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, have called on her to say something to condemn the violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority group.
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In the three weeks since a Rohingya militant group attacked police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the military and security forces have pressed a retaliatory offensive. Nearly 400,000 Rohingya have fled to overflowing refugee camps in Bangladesh, where aid workers struggle to feed them.
The United Nations has called the violence against the mostly Muslim Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
Others call it genocide.
But Aung San Suu Kyi has said little. Her first statements were to say that the world was being misled about the issue. Nearly two weeks after scores of Rohingya villages had been destroyed, she said her government would protect all the country’s residents and would implement a U.N.-backed plan for ending the discrimination and abuse the Rohingya endure.
But nothing more.
“Her silence in this case — that is increasingly recognized as crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing or, by the scholars, genocide — silence is complicity,” Maung Zarni, a Myanmar rights activist said via Skype from Britain.
While other critics aren’t quite as harsh, the frustration at her silence is profound.
“I suppose the disappointment comes from that someone who knows how abusive the military is has failed to call them out,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
It’s not just that Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t condemned the violence, said John Packer, director of the Human Rights Research and Education Center at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Packer, who has spent years researching rights in Myanmar, noted that she has also used the language the military has used to justify its actions in Rakhine.
That includes referring to the Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship since 1982, as Bengalis, which reinforces the government’s position that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Almost all of them, Packer said, are from families that have been in Myanmar for generations, going back hundreds of years.
New at governing
There are those, however, who urge patience with Aung San Suu Kyi.
They argue that her National League for Democracy has run Myanmar’s government for only a few years, and that the military, which ruled for more than 50 years, retains a great deal of power. The country, also known has Burma, has weak institutions and battles high levels of corruption.
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, has been critical of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance on the Rohingya but says much of the international criticism is misplaced.
“Constitutionally, she has no power to stop this. But she has moral authority,” he said. He thinks more pressure should be applied to Myanmar’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing. “He is literally calling the shots.”
But aside from the military, powerful nationalist Buddhist monks and many in the ethnic Bamar majority group favor the crackdown on the Rohingya.
Thus, pressuring Aung San Suu Kyi, some experts say, could undermine a fragile democracy.
“She is fighting alone and under great restraints,” global policy analyst Tej Parikh wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in May.
Maung Zarni doesn’t buy that argument.
“You talked about how little power she has. Well, she controls five other ministries that are directly involved in the genocidal process. Because genocide isn’t just simply killing 100,000 people in two weeks,” he said. “She controls the religious affairs, she controls the immigration ministry, she is the de facto head of the government, and she is also foreign minister.”
Ganguly at Human Rights Watch said, “This is someone who stood up to the very same abusive army” for so many years as a political dissident. “For her to not call them out is shocking for everyone.”
Ultimately, Aung San Suu Kyi must speak, Packer at the Human Rights Research Center said.
“She has to come out and say this is not where we are going … we protect people's lives, their homes.”
VOA's William Gallo contributed to this report.