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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

The halo which once crowned Myanmar's de facto leader has not just slipped – it has been replaced by a badge of shame

Aung San Suu Kyi's moral failures during the military's murderous rampage against the Rohingya have been her downfall

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung Shine Oo / AP
Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung Shine Oo / AP

As the first anniversary of the murderous violence that Myanmar's military unleashed against the Rohingya approaches, the halo that once was fixed firmly above the head of the country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has not just slipped. It has utterly disappeared, replaced instead by the badge of shame that is worn by any head of a government that stands accused of genocide.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh (that is on top of the thousands that ran from previous waves of repression). Villages have been razed, countless women raped and atrocities perpetrated too barbarous to be considered anything like a proportionate response to the alleged attacks by Rohingya militants that supposedly sparked the crackdown in the first place. That violent retaliation was later found by the Thai group Fortify Rights to have been extensively and systematically planned in advance.

Rohingya refugees queue at an aid relief distribution centre near Cox's Bazar. Ed Jones / AFP
Rohingya refugees queue at an aid relief distribution centre near Cox's Bazar. Ed Jones / AFP

The plight of the survivors, as The National reports from Cox's Bazar, is pitiable. The Myanmar authorities say that those with proof of residence, or “duly verified” people, as they put it, are welcome to return.

That is problematic in itself as many lack the necessary paperwork while the documentation of many of the dispossessed has been destroyed. So far very few have done so, which is hardly surprising. After all, to what would they be returning – to the embers of the homes in which families were burned alive? And why would they wish to go back to a regime which had visited upon them what outgoing UN human rights chief Zeid Raad Al Hussein called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing"?

Ms Suu Kyi has been mealymouthed and disingenuous at best, complaining of a campaign of "misinformation" and earning a rebuke for attempting to "sugar-coat" the state's crimes from Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

His chiding is all the more stern because “the lady”, as she is known, was once the poster girl for such organisations. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her long and lonely campaign against the military dictatorship, which ran what was then called Burma for nearly a half century from 1962.

So lustrous was her reputation that when Britain's New Statesman magazine asked readers to nominate "heroes of our time" in 2006, she easily topped the poll; remarkably, she received three times as many votes as the next person on the list – one Nelson Mandela.

Aung San Suu Kyi was once the poster girl for democracy. Thet Aung / AFP
Aung San Suu Kyi was once the poster girl for democracy. Thet Aung / AFP

Her present infamy – there is no doubt she wouldn’t even make the list now – represents a tragic fall. Now it may be that too much has always been expected of her.

When she became the face of the democracy movement that sprang up just over 30 years ago in 1988, she was an accidental leader. Long resident in Britain and married to an Oxford academic, Ms Suu Kyi was only in the country because her aged mother, the widow of Myanmar's liberation hero, general Aung San, was dying. Nothing, apart from the sense of destiny that many have observed in her, had prepared her to head a democratic revolution.

Some would say that it showed, and badly. In 1990, for instance, the junta had allowed elections. According to one of her biographers, veteran Myanmar reporter Bertil Lintner, after Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy clearly won the vote, the party should have announced its victory to the throng of international media who were in the capital, Yangon, brought a million people onto the street and liberated her from house arrest.

A police vehicle in Yangon in August 2009, where judgement on major opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was passed. Aung Hla Tun / Reuters
A police vehicle in Yangon in August 2009, where judgement on major opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was passed. Aung Hla Tun / Reuters

Amid worldwide television coverage, Mr Lintner said: "Given the fact that even the rank and file had voted for the NLD, it is unlikely that the soldiers in the streets would have tried to stop the masses of people.” The generals “could have been given amnesty and, if they so wanted, been permitted to leave the country. It would have all have been over in a day".

But Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD missed their chance and the authorities simply annulled the election. The country was not to have another properly democratic vote until 2015 – and even then, 25 per cent of the seats in both houses of parliament were reserved for military appointees.

Ms Suu Kyi has been accused of being autocratic, of being incapable of delegating and of a total failure to encourage and groom a successive generation. Speaking perhaps to that slightly troubling sense of destiny, a friend once warned her: “You not only have the courage of your convictions – you have the courage of your connections.”

Today that has morphed into what many view as a cult of personality in Myanmar. "Her pre-eminent role in the official media is as pronounced as in any authoritarian state," wrote the American academic and Asia specialist David Steinberg recently in The Diplomat. The myth of Ms Suu Kyi is "continuously projected within Myanmar while it expires internationally".

If it were just a matter of Ms Suu Kyi falling short as a politician or as a party leader, that would be one thing. To be an incompetent minister might be unfortunate for the relevant country but it is not a sin.

No – it is Ms Suu Kyi’s moral failures that make what has happened under her leadership so devastating for her erstwhile admirers and so catastrophic for her country.

It might be said that she is in an impossible situation. The ministries that are in charge of dealing with Rakhine State are in the hands of the generals who have the right “to take over and exercise state sovereign power” in the event of a national emergency.

A Rohingya man at Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Chandan Khanna / AFP
A Rohingya man at Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, near Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. Chandan Khanna / AFP

If she tries to push back too far, they might just do that. But there is little evidence that Ms Suu Kyi genuinely shares the revulsion at what has happened to a people denied citizenship and whom she can barely bring herself to name, because that would be “emotive”. (Her colleagues prefer to call them “Bengalis”.) She herself has blamed the violence on "terrorists".

There is equally little evidence that she thinks any crime has been committed at all. Add to this her chilly attitude to the media and the rights of minorities – not just Muslims but also the Christian Kachin who say they are worse off under her – and by this point one has to wonder what real change the NLD government led by her has brought to Myanmar.

And that, three decades after she first became one of the world’s most famous advocates of freedom and democracy, is the most ruinous verdict of all.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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