How Should We Criticize Aung San Suu Kyi’s Handling of the Rohingya Crisis?

Jens Thomsen
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

The Rohingya, a stateless, predominantly Muslim ethnic group, are victims of persecution being carried out in the western border state of Rakhine by Myanmar’s military forces.[1] It is the fastest-growing ongoing refugee crisis—since late August of this year, 615,500 refugees have fled to Bangladesh to escape execution, rape, and arson.[2] Although Myanmar’s government has made it difficult for human rights investigators to assess the situation, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that it seems to be a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”[3] Satellite images have shown entire villages wiped out by fires set by Myanmar’s military forces.[4] The Buddhist majority in Myanmar has deeply negative views of the Rohingya.[5] Most do not see them as part of the Burmese nation, but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.[6] This has put Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in a difficult position as Myanmar’s de facto leader. Aung San Suu Kyi, placed under house arrest for 15 years by the reigning military junta until 2010, has been the subject of increasing criticism from the international community for her reticence to condemn the military’s actions.[7]  The criticisms are made all the more earnest by a feeling that as a victim of injustice, she should stand up for a persecuted minority. Desmond Tutu penned an open letter beseeching Aung San Su Kyi to speak out, stating that it was “incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead [a country persecuting its people].”[8] After benefiting from international support throughout her house arrest and recent ascension to political power, Aung San Suu Kyi’s harshest critics have decided that her fall from grace is complete, with some calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.[9] Offering a more sympathetic view is Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and current president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.[10] Although Aung San Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government as State Counsellor (a role similar to Prime Minister or a head of government), she has no control over its military, border affairs, or police.[11] After her popular election, she was denied the title of President by military leaders who created a constitutional provision disallowing citizens with foreign spouses or children to hold the office (Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband is foreign).[12] Rudd’s position is that Aung San Suu Kyi is doing the best she can in a situation designed for her to fail.[13] As mentioned, the Burmese public has deeply held resentment toward the Rohingya, seeing them as unwelcome visitors, despite some Rohingya being in Rakhine for generations.[14] If Aung San Suu Kyi is too critical of what the Burmese military and public see as removal efforts directed at a troublemaking minority population, she will appear to be weak on national security.[15] Her refusal to criticize an apparent ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, engenders criticism and disappointment from the rest of the world.[16] She faces crises of legitimacy on internal and external fronts. Rudd posits that beyond the pressing humanitarian crisis of sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh, the international community must be careful not to allow the military’s strategy of undermining her at home and abroad to succeed.[17] This would pave the way for a return to military rule in Myanmar.[18] Going forward, how should Aung San Suu Kyi be viewed? Prior to the most recent removal efforts, Aung San Suu Kyi appointed a year-long commission led by Kofi Annan to produce a report detailing how Myanmar should approach the tense relations between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State.[19] Aung San Suu Kyi had pledged to fully implement its recommendations.[20] It should be noted, though, that the report was “not mandated to investigate specific cases of alleged human rights violations.”[21] Instead, it focused on institutional and structural problems contributing to the strife within Rakhine.[22] The report was released in late August of 2017.[23] A few days later, before any meaningful opportunity to implement the changes suggested by the report, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya insurgent group, carried out coordinated attacks on police posts in Rakhine State.[24] The military used these attacks as justification to ramp up removal efforts to current levels.[25] It is impossible to tell what Aung San Suu Kyi would have done with Kofi Annan’s report had tensions remained manageable, but her creation of the commission and stated commitment to carrying out its solutions were indicative of a willingness to approach the ethnic tensions in her country with an eye toward the improvement of conditions for the Rohingya, rather than their outright removal. The military leaders of Myanmar have demonstrated no such willingness. Those who criticize her do so for good reason. In response to photographs allegedly documenting the crisis, Aung San Suu Kyi stated there was an “iceberg of misinformation” designed to help terrorists in the region.[26] This misinformation is also a product of the government’s refusal to allow media access to troubled areas.[27] Her predominant stance of silence, interspersed with comments doubting reports of human rights abuses, can be interpreted as apathy toward the plight of the Rohingya, or even complicity. Although accusations of hypocrisy are easy to levy against a Nobel Peace Prize winner presiding over an ethnic cleansing, we must keep in mind her relative powerlessness, and consider that she may be doing all she can in a difficult situation. Indeed, Rudd points out that Myanmar’s military counts among its leaders many who wish to return to full military control, so Aung San Suu Kyi must avoid providing them with justification for a coup.[28] The international community should, by all means, continue to call for an end to the violence, but the broader calls for shame upon Aung San Suu Kyi as a Nobel Peace Prize winner are myopic, and could bring to a head the tensions between her country’s harsh attitude toward the Rohingya and higher ideals of humanitarianism professed by those removed from the situation. It would be unproductive to force Aung San Suu Kyi’s hand to the point that she must either declare support of the military’s actions, or criticize her compatriots and jeopardize the tenuous half-democracy currently in place in Myanmar.

[1] Rohingya Emergency, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (Nov. 12, 2017), [2] Id. [3] Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Darker and More Dangerous: High Commissioner Updates the Human Rights Council on Human Rights Issues in 40 Countries, Off. of the U.N. High Commissioner for Hum. Rts. (Sept. 11, 2017), [4] Burma: Military Torches Homes Near Border, Hum. Rts. Watch (Sept. 15, 2017), [5] Myanmar Wants Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya – UN Official, BBC News (Nov. 24, 2016), [6] Id. [7] Amanda Taub & Max Fisher, Did the World Get Aung San Suu Kyi Wrong?, N.Y. Times (Oct. 31, 2017), [8] Desmond Tutu, An Open Letter from Desmond Tutu to Aung San Suu Kyi, Indep. Online (Sept. 7, 2017), [9] George Monbiot, Take Away Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize. She No Longer Deserves It, Guardian (Sept. 5, 2017), [10] Kevin Rudd, Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis Meets Reality, N.Y. Times (Sept. 21, 2017), [11] Jonathan Head, Rohingya Crisis: How Much Power Does Aung San Suu Kyi Really Have?, BBC News (Sept. 13, 2017), [12] Id. [13] Rudd, supra note 10. [14] Myanmar Wants Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya – UN Official, supra note 5. [15] Rudd, supra note 10. [16] Id. [17] Id. [18] Id. [19] Advisory Comm’n on Rakhine State, Towards a Peaceful, Fair and Prosperous Future for the People of Rakhine (2017), [20] Commission Urges Myanmar to End Rohingya Restrictions, Al Jazeera (Aug. 24, 2017), [21] Advisory Comm’n on Rakhine State, supra note 19, at 13. [22] Id. [23] Rudd, supra note 10. [24] Id. [25] Id. [26] Rohingya Crisis: Suu Kyi Says ‘Fake News Helping Terrorists,’ BBC News (Sept. 6, 2017), [27] Id. [28] Rudd, supra note 10.