“I’m just a politician,” said Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a BBC interview last week; “I’m no Mother Teresa.” Fair enough: she has a country to run, and an army to hold at bay. But she’s no Nelson Mandela either, and that has deeply disappointed some people (including fellow holders of the Nobel
Peace Prize) who expected better of her. The issue that most upsets them is her refusal to take a firm stand on the mistreatment of the Rohingya minority, Muslims of Bengali descent who live in Rakhine state in southwestern Burma. Since an outbreak of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2013, the army has treated the Rohingyas with great brutality, and at least a hundred thousand have fled into neighboring Bangladesh for safety.
The repression has been particularly bad in the past year, with many Rohingyas in the northern part of the state raped or murdered by the army, and foreign critics have begun to describe the events in Rakhine state as “ethnic cleansing.” “I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she said in the BBC interview. It is not too strong an expression at all. There is great prejudice among Burmese Buddhists against the country’s 4 percent Muslim minority, and especially against the Rohingyas. It is the one issue on which the majority of the population agrees with the generals, not with Suu Kyi – and she has no control over how the army behaves. After decades of house arrest and years of campaigning, “the lady” (as she is known in Burma) finally took power from the army last year. But the army-written constitution gives the solders complete control of all “security matters,” and indeed does not even permit her to be the president.
So the “state counsellor,” as she is officially known, is in power, but not very securely. The army could decide to take power back , although it would probably face massive popular resistance if it did. For that reason, she doesn’t go out of her way to pick fights with the generals. Even when she was asked by the BBC whether the Burmese army’s actions in Rakhine were aggressive, she refused to agree. Instead she produced the kind of diversionary talk that the Sean Spicers of the world spout under pressure: “I think there’s a lot of hostility [in Rakhine]. It’s Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think that they are collaborating with authorities … It’s people on different sides of a divide.” Burmese Buddhists are paranoid about the perils of a Muslim takeover. It’s ridiculous, given the tiny size of the Muslim minority, but there is real fear about what happened centuries ago to other once-Buddhist, now-Muslim countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. If Suu Kyi ignores that ugly fact, she risks handing the country back to the army.
Mandela had it easy by comparison. Like her, he gained his status as a secular saint by demanding democracy through decades of imprisonment, but when he became South Africa’s first freely elected president in 1994 he really had the power. There was no fear that the apartheid regime might come back. He made wise decisions, gave up the presidency after one term, and died still a saint. Suu Kyi has no such luck. She has, miraculously, persuaded a clique of greedy, autocratic, hyper-nationalist generals to surrender most of their political power voluntarily. But it was a deal in which she had to guarantee them freedom of action in their own domain, although she intends to re-write that constitution when she can.
In the meantime, she is undoubtedly doing what she can to limit the army’s cruelty in Rakhine state, but she is not going to throw away Burma’s first chance of a real democracy after almost 60 years of military rule by going public about it. It’s not sainthood, but it does qualify as wise political leadership.