AUNG San Suu Kyi’s enforced silence throughout almost twenty years of house arrest helped her become a global democratic icon, but her voluntary silence about the deplorable situation of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingyas jeopardises this standing.
During her lengthy house arrest, Suu Kyi demonstrated a stoic dignity and steadfast commitment to the welfare and rights of Myanmar’s ordinary people, earning her standing as a much loved national figure and as a worthy Nobel Laureate.
Since her release from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi has been far from silent, speaking freely about political matters, including the economic liberalisation, ethnic and international relations, and the national constitution. With a re-energised National League for Democracy (NLD) party, the Lady, as she is adoringly known to many in Myanmar, was elected to Parliament in 2012, giving her an official platform to express her political views.
Over the last five years, she has had a lot to say, platforms from which to say it and, owing to her iconic status, a willing audience in Myanmar and internationally.
The Lady has become suddenly silent as Myanmar’s discriminatory policies towards the Rohingyas have created a regional migration crisis. This silence risks irrevocably tarnishing her image and political credibility as a future Myanmar and Asean leader, prompting many to ask why does Suu Kyi stay silent.
The answer can be found, in part, by looking at domestic Myanmar electoral politics.
Myanmar has a substantial ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority with ethnic minorities concentrated around the periphery of the country.
The ethnic minorities support their own political parties while nationwide parties, like Suu Kyi’s NLD, will compete with the government for votes from the Buddhist-majority centre.
In recent years, this Buddhist constituency has become increasingly influenced by Buddhist nationalism. Activist monks like the nationalist U Wirathu, described by Time magazine as the “Face of Buddhist Terror”, have worked to promote anti-Muslim feeling among the country’s Buddhist majority.
Consequently, today there is a growing anti-Muslim constituency in Myanmar. Politicians are nervous that there could be enough voters willing to punish those seen to be pro-Muslim to cost them an election.
The unchecked rise of Buddhist nationalism is in part a problem of Suu Kyi’s own making. Her refusal to strongly condemn U Wirathu and his ilk from the outset emboldened Buddhist nationalists and gave them the political space to organise and recruit.
An early condemnation by the popular Suu Kyi could have gone a long way to limiting their influence today. However cynical, the bottom line here for the ambitious politician Suu Kyi is that there are few votes to be won by speaking up for the Rohingyas, but potentially many to be lost.
Losing votes is not something Suu Kyi, the politician, is prepared to risk. She is determined to become Myanmar’s president. Her continued stated policy priority is to change the national constitution, which currently bars her from becoming president because she married a foreigner.
But a desire to win votes does not tell the whole story about why Suu Kyi has been silent on the Rohingya situation. There are other equally compelling reasons which could explain her silence, among these, her relationship with her political party, the NLD.
Suu Kyi’s political ambitions require the support of the NLD. She co-founded the party and despite being unable to contest a seat, led it to a landslide election victory in 1990 before the military government invalidated the results and imprisoned its leaders.
The NLD is yet to taste political office but is favoured to win Myanmar’s next election. Many believe the NLD’s aging organisational leadership has little desire to support the Rohingyas and risk alienating the nation’s Buddhist majority voters.
These leadership figures supported her during her years of house arrest, so it could be her silence is motivated in part by her sense of moral obligation to them and their joint project — the political success of the NLD.
The NLD’s leaders are predominantly Buddhist and, like Suu Kyi, are from the country’s majority Bamar ethnicity. None of the NLD leadership has criticised Suu Kyi’s failure to speak up on behalf of the Rohingyas, so it is reasonable to assume she represents the majority position.
It is worth considering, too, whether Suu Kyi’s personal beliefs and attitudes towards religion and ethnic politics have influenced her decision to ignore the welfare of the Rohingyas.
She often speaks about the influence of her father, independence hero Aung San, on her political involvement. It is likely many of her current political positions are informed by her commitment to his legacy as the creator of Myanmar as a federal nation-state where Buddhists and ethnic Bamars dominate.
Suu Kyi’s writings on minority issues, while rhetorically supportive of ethnic rights, suggest she holds a strong Bamar Buddhist identity. This makes it likely she will reflexively take political positions consistent with the perceived interests of Myanmar’s majority ethnic and religious group, the Bamar Buddhists.
In a democratic sense, these positions could well be presented as simply supporting the will of the majority of the people, rather than any anti-minority agenda.
However, the country’s substantial Bamar Buddhist majority means, in Myanmar, democratic arguments will always be strongly stacked in their favour.
Seeking to understand the reasons why Suu Kyi has chosen to stay silent about the mistreatment of the Rohingyas is important because her standing globally means she has huge influence over the policies and attitudes of many countries, particularly the United States and Europe, towards Myanmar. Even if she fails in her bid to become president, her standing in Myanmar guarantees her an influential political role in a strategically important country of over 50 million people.
Even while she is silent, Suu Kyi’s failure to speak in defence of a persecuted Muslim minority says plenty about her vision for Myanmar.
The writer is a doctoral candidate at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University, Australia