How was the world misled by Aung San Suu Kyi? The question has often been asked since Burma’s de facto leader offered her to the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine State. Part of the answer is that people wanted to believe. Suu Kyi’s and convictions were always more complex than the popular image of a selfless freedom fighter. They were overlooked because the story was just too appealing: a nation, symbolized by the courage of one woman, finding its way to freedom, democracy, and liberalism.
The word “progress” appeared seven times in Barack Obama’s 2012 speech in Yangon, which praised Burma’s political reforms and confirmed that the US would offer friendship and investment, rather than criticism and sanctions. (Other countries followed suit: From 2010 to 2015, foreign direct investment in Burma rose almost tenfold.) The speech was far from naïve: Obama rebuked Burma’s leaders for the continuing violence and repression. Nevertheless, the speech rang out with something more than optimism: It was the enthusiasm of a believer in progress. Burma was, Obama said, a symbol of the world’s prospects, “a test of whether a country can transition to a better place.” It would, surely, pass the test: “I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed.” History—and not just Burma’s history—was traveling in one direction.
That belief shaped US policy. The Obama White House never lost sight of Burma’s problems, but as Nahal Toosi has shown in a superb, there was a consistent bias towards good news. One ex-staffer tells Toosi, “It was really hard to issue statements that suggested not all was well with the US relationship with Myanmar, even when it came to the Rohingya.” The human rights campaigner Jennifer Quigley recalls: “We kept warning them that with each sanction they lifted, it emboldened the military to commit more human rights abuses.”
If these warnings were brushed off, it was because the dream of Burma overcoming its repressive past—the great transition which “cannot be reversed”—was so appealing. Especially when there was a heroine who embodied the dream. As Laura Bush—co-chair with Hillary Clinton of the Suu Foundation—said in 2007, “Aung San Suu Kyi … represents the hopes of the people of Burma.” U2’s “Walk On” (2000) was dedicated to Suu Kyi, then still under house arrest. At the end of the song’s official video, she appears, saying: “There’s a long way to go, and the way might be very very hard, so please stand by.” Suu Kyi symbolized the slow but sure triumph of the good. Even experienced observers were bowled over: “A slight and graceful figure,” Letters From Burma: “Were she to be allowed to take her rightful place as the elected leader of the Burmese people, I have little doubt that the principles so eloquently expressed in these pages would illuminate her governance.”the Labour peer Baroness Kinnock, “she has more serenity and humanity than anyone I have ever met.” The seasoned BBC journalist Fergal Keane wrote in his introduction to Suu Kyi’s
Those words have not aged well. Even before the military’s unspeakable campaign of killing, rape, and arson against the Rohingya reached its peak, Keane wasSuu Kyi: “Do you ever worry that you will be remembered as the champion of human rights, the Nobel Laureate, who failed to stand up to ethnic cleansing in her own country?” And now that a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, security forces seem to have found new targets. Many of the Kachin Christian minority, according to last week, believe they are getting the same treatment as the Rohingya: targeted attacks, mass rape, and unprovoked machine-gunning of civilians, aimed at driving a whole people out of their homes.
The Burmese authorities may have been encouraged by the sluggish international response to last year’s brutality. As a committee of British MPs recently, “Reports and evidence of Burmese military offensives in Northern Shan, Kachin and Karen states inevitably give rise to the very grave concern of whether a perceived lack of accountability or consequence has emboldened the perpetrators.”
Having once put such hopes in Burma, the world has lost interest. Now is the moment for governments and investors to ask where they went wrong, and what policies should be reviewed. What further sanctions can be imposed on Burma’s generals? What forms of investment can be withdrawn? Can the atrocities be referred to the International Criminal Court? Some changes have been made: The EU has promised to freeze the assets of a small number of Burmese generals. But the most visible response has been the disappointment of Suu Kyi’s former admirers. The Holocaust Museum retracted her Elie Wiesel Award, U2 withdrew their dedication of “Walk On,” and Suu Kyi’s alma mater. This makes it seem as though Burma’s catastrophe is about one woman’s integrity. It would be more unsettling to ask to what extent Suu Kyi’s image was created by our own dreams of irresistible progress.
In 2016, when Suu Kyi received the Humanitarian of the Year award at Harvard, there were protests outside the lecture hall from. They said she had neglected the agony of the Rohingya, who remained in serious danger. To the hundreds who walked past the protesters, they must have looked like a small footnote to history.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.