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.