Why Is Aung San Suu Kyi Silent on the Rohingya Atrocities?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

When Harvard University awarded Aung San Suu Kyi the Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2016, students protested her refusal to acknowledge abuses of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Her continued silence in the face of mounting atrocities is prompting people around the world to denounce her work, rescind her Nobel Peace Prize, and worse.

What explains her silence?

Her reticence likely reflects a political calculus. Aung San Suu Kyi will not stand up for the Rohingya because doing so will likely remove her from the process she has fought for decades to be included in and continues to fight so hard to transform.

Politicians, especially democratically elected ones, say (or avoid saying) whatever it takes to win the votes of people, and people very often have profound historical grievances and abysmal cultural prejudices.

For far too long people have mistaken elections for democracy, conflating the two. Elections are merely one of many tools, and tools can be shaped and manipulated to fit the task at hand.

The election that brought the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi to power was a tool to legitimize de jure democratic rule in Myanmar to Western audiences (for various reasons) while retaining de facto military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi knows this better than anybody and wants to change it, but change takes time.

If she publicly speaks to the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya, the international community will praise her, activists will cheer, and the media will declare that she has done the right thing.

GettyImages-845294582 Rohingya refugees being transported to a camp on the back of a lorry after arriving from Myanmar on September 10, 2017 in Whaikhyang, Bangladesh. Recent reports have suggested that around 290,000 Rohingya have now fled Myanmar after violence erupted in Rakhine state. The 'Muslim insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army' have issued a statement that indicates that they are to observe a cease fire, and have asked the Myanmar government to reciprocate. Dan Kitwood/Getty

But in her country, her party will most likely lose the next election to military-controlled parties. If that happens, the strongest voice for democracy in Burma will be silenced, the repression of Rohingya and all other minorities will intensify, and cries will ring out for intervention.

Myanmar will slide backwards, away from democracy and deeper into dictatorship.

People who care about Burma should not be so ready and eager to burn down their best advocate for democracy just because of what she says or refuses to say. Bringing her down only empowers the men behind the curtain. Critics of President Trump could take a lesson from this too.

We should stop hyperventilating every time Trump says something “stupid” and instead step back and think about why he is saying (or not saying) it. It is for a reason.

If we would like to do more to help the Rohingya, and we should, we should be more imaginative about how to help. Attacking Aung San Suu Kyi is not the answer.

Clay R. Fuller is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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