Dr Catherine Renshaw
Deputy Head of the Thomas More Law School
It is rare to see a moral divide as clear as the one between those who defend Aung San Suu Kyi's failure to condemn atrocities carried out against the Rohingya, and those who condemn her silence.
The case put by the first group is that there is only a moral duty to speak out against persecution when your words would do some good; and there is a positive duty not to speak if, by doing so, you would cause things to become worse.
In the context of Myanmar, where the success of democratic transition depends on the military's cooperation with the opposition and where Suu Kyi's effective power is severely constrained by the Constitution, it is not clear that her public championing of the Rohingya would cause the military to halt its campaign.
On the other hand, there is strong historical evidence that the Burmese military is prepared to end moves towards democracy and assume control if it feels its political role in the country is under threat. Such a move would not assist the Rohingya and would harm all the other minorities in the country, who hope for peace and further democratization.
The first group applauds Suu Kyi's resistance to what, in their view, would be the easy path - that of appeasing her Western circle of admirers with a rousing burst of rhetoric in defence of the Rohingya, which ultimately does no good. Suu Kyi is playing the long game, they argue, as a good politician should, for the ultimate benefit of the whole country.
The second group, in contrast, believe that Suu Kyi as the de facto leader of the country is under a clear moral duty to tell the world the truth about what is happening to the Rohingya and to condemn the military for what it has done. In their view, this duty stems from the principle that there is value (and equal value) in every human life; that respecting this value means treating human beings with dignity; that dignity means, at its most basic level, acknowledging a groups existence and the truth of what is being done to them.
The modern practice of human rights draws a clear line between the mass crimes committed under the Nazi regime and the world's failure to recognise, and speak about, the progressive attacks on the dignity of Jews and others in Nazi Germany. On this reading, to fail to speak is to take the first step on a path that ultimately leads to Auschwitz, Rwanda, Srebrenica. Even if the result of publicly denouncing atrocities is unclear, they must still be denounced. Suu Kyi herself, under house arrest during the long years of military dictatorship, wrote that "concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power."
The fundamental difference between the first group and the second is that the former believe that it is senseless (and possibly destructive) to act without actual power to effect positive change. For the latter group, there is power, of a kind, in words: the power to comfort the persecuted (at least history will remember them); and the power to draw attention to injustice and in doing so, to shape the sensibilities of those who do have power, reducing the likelihood of future atrocities ("never again" an Auschwitz, a Rwanda, a Srebrenica).
Aung San Suu Kyi, of course, has never been entirely without power in Myanmar. She has always had, and has used, the considerable power of her father's name. Aung San was a war hero and the architect of Myanmar's independence from Britain. This fact has tempered the military's actions towards her. At various times, while Suu Kyi's colleagues were arrested and tortured, Suu Kyi was merely put under house arrest. In 1989, 2003 and reportedly in 2008, Suu Kyi followed Gandhi in embarking on hunger strikes, and each time she won some small concessions from the military. The military has always known that there were limits to what it could do to the daughter of Aung San.
Suu Kyi will not go on a hunger strike to protest the military's attack on the Rohingya. A hunger strike is a crude political tactic, employed by those who are not part of the system. It is not the act of a politician; it is not the act of someone who sits in parliament commanding majority votes in the legislature. Yet on her own admission, as a politician, Suu Kyi can do nothing to forestall the grave situation facing the Rohingya. It seems Suu Kyi had more power before she entered parliament. She must be asking herself: at what cost a democratic transition in partnership with the military?
Perhaps we who sit in the West, calling for Suu Kyi to "speak," to "do something," should pause. It was "we" - the well-meaning governments of the West and the administration of Barack Obama - who sought to carve out a new way of dealing with one of the world's most enduring dictatorships, by ending the campaign of sanctions and isolation towards Myanmar and seeking engagement with the generals.
The West urged Suu Kyi to accept a managed transition to democracy, in partnership with the military, and to end her long-running demand for the reinstatement of the 1990 election results, which her party had won but the military had refused to honour. There are no secret provisions in the 2008 Constitution of the Union of Myanmar - it clearly puts key levers of power in the hands of the military and prohibits Suu Kyi from holding real power as President.
Yet, eyeing the prospect of a Myanmar not shackled to China but open to and supportive of the West, the West was prepared to hope for the best. Suu Kyi knew better, or she would not for so long have resisted any kind of collaboration with the military and its plans to create a demi-democracy. Suu Kyi has consistently protested her love for the military as the army of her father, but she did not trust it. Trust was weathered during the long years of house arrest, while the military toyed with her freedom and tortured her friends.
In January 2018, Bill Richardson, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, resigned from Suu Kyi's international advisory board tasked with bringing peace and stability to Myanmar's Rakhine state. He said that Suu Kyi exploded in rage toward him when he suggested that journalists should have access to Rakhine state. "If I had been standing any closer to her," said Richardson, "I think she would have hit me."
Suu Kyi's rage is entirely comprehensible. This is not the situation she fought for and suffered for. It is a situation crafted partially by Western interests, who greedily eyed the profits that might come from a Myanmar that was open enough to trade with and to factor into their security concerns. And now, the West criticises Suu Kyi for being in precisely the position they advised her to take.
Our umbrage at Suu Kyi's silence over the Rohingya should be tempered by humility: perhaps the West was wrong to push Myanmar towards the pale shadow of democracy that it currently is.
Catherine Renshaw is Deputy Head of the Thomas More Law School, Australian Catholic University.
First published in ABC Religion and Ethics | 11 Feb 2018
Page last updated: 2018-02-13
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