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An Unbecoming Compromise

On the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi lets political expediency dominate principles

Written by Karan Thapar | Published: September 14, 2017 12:36 am
rohingyas, aung san suu kyi, myanmar, rohingya, rohingya refugees, un general assembly, suu kyi rohingya refugees, suu kyi un general assembly, world news A keen sense of idealism and an unrelenting commitment to her principles was the most defining quality of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character (File)

It was inevitable that once Aung San Suu Kyi became Burma’s ruler and was no longer just a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had spent 15 years under arrest, she would fall from the pedestal on which she had been placed. But her collapse is more dramatic than anyone could have envisaged. I’ve known her since I was five, when she was an undergraduate at Lady Shri Ram College. A keen sense of idealism and an unrelenting commitment to her principles was the most defining quality of her character. An incident in Oxford in the 1970s captures the sort of person she was and how she would react to any hint of racial prejudice. I was babysitting her younger son, Kim, when I cracked a joke about the Chinese people. Unthinkingly, I referred to them as “chinks”.

“You can’t use that word”, she sharply interrupted. “It’s not acceptable even in humour.” Her tone left me in no doubt of her seriousness.

This is why I find it so surprising that today Suu, as I’ve always called her, is unable to express concern and sympathy for the Rohingya. I realise she has to walk a careful line between offending her country’s majority Burmese population and expressing concern for the Rohingya minority they despise. When I interviewed her, in September 2015, just before the election that brought her to power, I questioned her silence. Her explanation was this is the only way of ensuring she would be seen as impartial by both sides. Silence gave her the opportunity and credibility to act impartially when she came to power. Her aim was reconciliation and condemnation would get in the way. It would fan the flames, not douse them.

She was speaking three years after the Rohingya issue first flared in 2012 but long before October 2016 and August 2017. So I had no reason to doubt her. Yet, this was a test she knew she had to face sooner rather than later. The Rohingya problem is an old one that goes back to the 1940s, when they sided with the British against the Japanese, who had the support of the majority Burmese people. Indeed, immediately after independence, the Rohingya tried to form a breakaway Muslim nation. Therefore, the bitterness between the Rohingya and the rest of the country was waiting to explode. Suu has always known this.

Now I also know she’s not president and internal security lies in the hands of the army who thwarted her claim to the top job. Criticising them could endanger the limited power she exercises. She has to tread carefully and speak cautiously. Hers is not a position of absolute authority. She has to compromise to survive.

Yet, not for a moment did I think the compromise she would strike would be so tilted in favour of retaining power and influence whilst forsaking her own principles. Today, if she speaks, it’s about Rohingya terrorism and the killing of security personnel. She has nothing to say about the innocent men, women and children who have been killed in their hundreds and rendered homeless in hundreds of thousands. Does political expediency dominate her principles so completely that she cannot even express compassion? Is she so fearful of the army that she’s forgotten her own values? I didn’t expect her to defy the army or endanger Burma’s fledgling democracy but I also did not expect her lips to remain so firmly sealed.

This raises a disturbing question: Was her silence on the Rohingya issue before the elections impartiality, as she claimed, or seeking favour with the Burmese majority, whose support she would need? Was it pragmatism or opportunism?

In the interview in September 2015, she described herself as “a pragmatic leader”. At the time that adjective conveyed a sense of careful balance. Today it suggests a cover for unbecoming compromise. When I asked if she was ready for the challenge of ruling Burma, she answered: “It’s a daunting challenge . I hope it brings out the best in me.” I wish I could say it has.

The writer is president of Infotainment Television and a TV anchor

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More From Karan Thapar
  1. L
    Sep 18, 2017 at 6:24 am
    This Thapar should study Burma formula and write. Ghandhism, Nehruvism failed our country. Now some rusted Left hand writers are promoting Pappuism which may be more horrible.
    1. K
      Sep 15, 2017 at 6:28 am
      There are many terrorists groups in J K and to abolish them the Burmese formula is practical and perfect.
      1. A
        ak dev
        Sep 15, 2017 at 4:46 am
        Until recently the opposition was crying that India has become an unsafe place for Muslims. Then how come India should be safe place for Rohingya Muslims. It's amazing how Muslim leaders in opposition can change their stance. I suggest that those Rohingya who convert to Hinduism should be allowed to remain in India as Hindus sre safe in India. Rohingya Muslims should be sent to Islamic countries that are safe for Muslims. Those Indian Muslims who protesting for the safety of Rohingyas should also be exported to Islamic countries.
        1. P
          Sep 15, 2017 at 5:20 am
          Haha, good suggestions to libtards, very good advice. Rohingyas are good people but India not at all safe for them, for their safety's sake please ask Islamic countries to provide them asylum.
          1. P
            Paki Kutta
            Sep 15, 2017 at 6:20 am
            Dear ex- VP Ansari, dear SRK, dear Aamir Khan, Dear Rahman, Dear Sabana and Javed, etc etc please either leave the country as it is not safe for you or take Rohingya rwfugees in your houses. Off course, we have 20 million illegal Bangladeshi muslims.who will be next coming to your house.
          2. N
            Niladrinath Mohanty
            Sep 15, 2017 at 4:15 am
            I did not read the full article after finding that Karan Thapar knew Ms. AungSan Suu Kyi when he was five years old and she was studying in a Delhi college.
            1. P
              Sep 15, 2017 at 4:37 am
              see reading the heading, not sure if IE staff decides it or author, is all you need to read.... these are heavily biased political stooges that rant here in IE space, so inside the article you will have just hodgepodge of spins... read heading and comment..:-).. reading comment is 10 times better than wasting time on reading article... people posting comments are much more straightforward
            2. ሆልይ ትርንትይ
              Sep 15, 2017 at 2:32 am
              Modi is recommending Beirut Rattan for Aung San Suu Kyi
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