Studies prove that our capacity for compassion is deeply affected by our preconceptions of those in need
Aung San Suu Kyi's silence about the Rohingya shows how her mind really works
Earlier this month, I was in Vietnam attending the World Economic Forum meeting, where Aung San Suu Kyi publicly addressed her country's crisis in Rakhine State at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It raised some complex questions about repentance and guilt, emotions she has been accused of failing to express.
A few hours earlier, I had gone for a walk in Hanoi, the country’s capital. As I navigated the chaotic dance of cars, scooters and people on the streets, a man poked me and began to speak. I could not understand what he was saying, but his gestures clearly indicated that he was asking for money. I tried to explain that I had no cash on me. He walked away shouting, obviously upset with me.
At first, I felt compassion for him. Then, after a few minutes, my brain switched to more self-centred emotions: shame and guilt for not being able to help him.
In 2017, researchers at McGill University in Montreal published a meta-analysis of studies that used functional brain-imaging to shed light on the neural mechanisms of guilt, defined as “a self-conscious emotion associated with the negative appraisal of one’s behaviour”. They found that feelings of guilt kickstarted brain activity that is also involved in self-representation, theory of mind – the ability to understand what others are experiencing – conflict monitoring and moral values.
The sequence of emotions I experienced after meeting this man on the streets of Hanoi was exactly what they would have expected.
Over the following days in the capital, at the World Economic Forum meeting, the topic was the impact on the region of the fourth industrial revolution – a paradigm shift in which technology blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres − the international media concentrated on a different matter entirely.
During the meeting, Ms Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, made her first comments in months on an issue that has created a storm of criticism against her and tarnished her reputation. As an opponent of the Burmese government, Ms Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989. She became a powerful symbol of human rights activism and in 1991 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, however, she is being accused of doing nothing to prevent shocking abuses being perpetrated in her country.
Since August 2017, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have been the victims of a brutal military crackdown. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh, villages have been torched, rapes and murders have been committed, and an estimated 10,000 people have lost their lives. A recent UN report clearly points to Ms Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter. There have even been calls to strip her of her Nobel Prize.
A recurring question is how a woman such as Ms Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years of her life under house arrest and was feted around the world as a tireless defender of truth and justice, can so quickly have lost her sense of moral direction. Her refusal to address the Rohingya situation has been interpreted as a tacit endorsement of what the UN report has deemed a genocide against the Rohingya.
It is likely that many are outraged by Ms Suu Kyi’s inaction because they believe that having been the victim of a totalitarian regime, she should be the first to display compassion for those who are being persecuted. This appears to be a logical assumption, but human brains rarely operate this way.
At the meeting, Ms Suu Kyi admitted that the Rohingya situation could have been handled better, which for many was seen as too little too late. A closer look at statements Ms Suu Kyi has made in public over the past five years also reveals much about her attitude towards the Rohingya.
Lutfey Siddiqi − a visiting professor at the London School of Economics who spoke at the World Economic Forum meeting − spoke to me after she was interviewed by Borge Brende, the forum’s president. “Aung San Suu Kyi has been consistent on the Rohingya issue,” he told me. “I recall hearing her say during a conference in 2013 that Muslims are part of a powerful global network, which makes the conflict more even-handed than it appears from outside. She has repeated the line on several occasions that there is fear on both sides.” Ms Suu Kyi made similar statements in a 2013 interview with the BBC.
So, given what she had to endure in the past, is this lack of empathy and care simply another example of a victim of oppression becoming an oppressor? Perhaps. However, a recent study by researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Germany on the connectivity between brain areas involved in compassionate behaviour has found that these mechanisms are modulated by one’s perception of the responsibility of victims. Ms Suu Kyi’s public statements against Muslims and her indifference to the plight of the Rohingya seem to illustrate this finding perfectly.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ. He served as global head of strategy in health and healthcare and member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum