The Blog

Aung San Suu Kyi Is Betraying the Values She Once Championed

I still have a faint hope that Aung Suu Kyi might change her position on the Rohingya, as she acknowledged there was a problem by setting up the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State and seemed sincere in her wish to solve it.

As a student at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, in the early noughties, I was proud to be studying at an institution that had been at the forefront of progressive change to expand education to women. I was also proud that among our alumni was Aung San Suu Kyi, then under house arrest as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar, and winner of the Nobel peace prize "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights". I was delighted when in 2010 she was released from house arrest and in 2015 the NLD won a landslide in the Myanmar parliamentary elections.

When Aung San Suu Kyi visited Oxford in 2012 to collect an honorary degree, she talked about the values that Oxford taught her. It is profoundly sad that in her response to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar she is betraying those very liberal values of democracy and human rights which she once championed.

It is clear that the Myanmar military are systematically persecuting the Rohingya. This is being done under the pretence of fighting terrorism, which of course the military has the right to protect itself from, but nothing can justify what the military has done. The Rohingya have been subject to a brutal crackdown including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture and widespread arson, much of which has been documented by well respected NGOs such as Human Rights Watch.

Satellite imagery shows where Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground but it cannot replicate the terror that the villagers must have experienced. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has said this "the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

Throughout this Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to stand up for the defence of the very human rights that she preached for when she was under house arrest. Disappointing as this is, we must not forget that the primary force persecuting the Rohingya is the military and not the civilian government of Myanmar. That means we also need to bring pressure to bear on General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

As First State Counsellor of Myanmar (broadly the equivalent of prime minister), Aung San Suu Kyi may not in practice have the power to directly stop the military. Myanmar's government is a civilian-military hybrid, with the military even having parliamentary seats allocated to it. However, she has the power of her voice, just as she did when under house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi has the ability to call for the changes that are needed to resolve the situation.

Firstly, she should call on the military to halt its campaign of persecution against the Rohingya. A necessary precursor to this accepting that grave human rights violations have been perpetrated on the Rohingya rather than dismissing such claims as an "iceberg of misinformation".

Secondly, Aung San Suu Kyi should demand that the military allow the UN and other aid agencies access to Myanmar to deliver vital supplies, and allow the Rohingya to return safely to their homes. This is likely to require a huge relief effort especially given the reports of widespread arson that will have wreaked havoc to many refugees' homes.

Thirdly, Aung San Suu Kyi must support reforms so that the historic discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is ended. A first step to this would be accepting and working to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State, which was chaired by for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Commission's final report is an intelligent and nuanced account of the problems facing the Rakhine State and contains comprehensive recommendations for ending the discrimination against the Rohingya and fostering reconciliation amongst the different ethnic groups in the Rakhine State. Vital changes that are needed include allowing the Rohingya freedom of movement within Myanmar and reforming citizenship laws so that they are afforded full citizenship.

I still have a faint hope that Aung Suu Kyi might change her position on the Rohingya, as she acknowledged there was a problem by setting up the Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State and seemed sincere in her wish to solve it. It is a great pity that she has not taken action to protect the Rohingya but it is not too later for her to change course. When Aung San Suu Kyi spoke at Oxford five years ago she said "The road ahead, as I said, is not going to be easy. But Oxford, I know, expects the best of its own". She was right. Today, she is letting Oxford down and it is time for her to change direction.