Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was long hailed as the hero of human rights in her homeland. But the forced exodus of nearly half a million minority Rohingya has changed that
The satellites first detected the villages going up in flames on Aug. 25. One by one, entire townships across western Myanmar were burning, just hours after Muslim militants attacked national army posts in the Asian country’s Rakhine state.
Soon a new crush of refugees was pouring into neighboring Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, were fleeing the army’s apparent retaliation. Refugees told aid workers that the military had set fire to their homes and planted land mines on their escape routes. Myanmar’s soldiers, they said, were shooting Rohingya women and children as they fled.
This was not the first time the Myanmar army had attacked the Rohingya, but the scale was far greater than ever before. More than 200 villages burned over the next three weeks. More than 420,000 Rohingya flooded refugee camps, and nearly two-thirds were children. Humanitarian aid agencies UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières were denied access to conflict areas. The U.N. human-rights chief called the crisis “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
In Myanmar, one voice remained notably silent. Human-rights icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government, did not condemn the atrocities. Fellow laureates were quick to point out the contradiction. Pakistani human-rights activist Malala Yousafzai said “the world is waiting” for her to speak out. South African clergyman Desmond Tutu prayed that Suu Kyi would be “courageous and resilient again.” Instead, Suu Kyi blamed “a misinformation campaign” and announced she would no longer attend the U.N. General Assembly in late September.
Finally, 25 days after the first village was burned, Suu Kyi addressed the world. In a televised global address from Myanmar’s capital, in front of army officials and foreign diplomats, Suu Kyi declined to criticize the military. Instead of reaching out to the Rohingya, she questioned the international outcry itself. Her government, she said, was “concerned” about reports of villages burning in Rakhine, but had to weigh “allegations and counterallegations” before taking action. She argued that the international community should pay more attention to areas where there was peace than areas where there was conflict. “It is very little known that the great majority of Muslims in the Rakhine state have not joined the exodus,” she claimed. “It is sad that in meeting our diplomatic community, I am obliged to focus on just a very few of our problems.” Her remarks prompted outrage. “Her speech tried to sugarcoat ethnic cleansing,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
This is how icons fall. The U.S. had championed Suu Kyi not just as the great savior of her country but also as the model of nonviolent disobedience in Southeast Asia. The U.N. had expressed expectations for Burma, as Myanmar was long known, under her leadership. Now she has revealed different priorities. “She sees herself very deliberately now as a political actor inside of a changing Burma, not as an icon that essentially speaks out on human rights,” says Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser. “Her single-minded pursuit of that objective of political reform inside of Burma has created a very glaring and tragic blind spot.”
More than a reputation is being destroyed. In Myanmar, a country with a population twice that of Texas and squeezed between India, China and Thailand, instability could result in a military takeover of the government, undoing democratic reforms. Terrorists see the persecution of Muslims as a recruiting tool, and already al-Qaeda militants are threatening to punish Myanmar for its violence to the Rohingya. The U.S. has pressured the Myanmar army to break ties it has maintained with North Korea. Meanwhile, China continues to pursue economic interests in Rakhine to secure strategic access to the Bay of Bengal. Hundreds of thousands of lives may depend on whether the once-revered Suu Kyi will eventually take a stronger stand.
The road to democracy is often messy. Beyond the long-standing civil conflicts between Myanmar’s central government and myriad ethnic minorities, Suu Kyi is under pressure from army generals who have veto power over constitutional change, as well as Buddhist nationalists whose power is rising. The Trump Administration, which has articulated an “America first” foreign policy, must decide how it will handle the first sweeping ethnic conflict on its watch. In the U.S. Congress, some lawmakers want to impose sanctions and end limited military ties allowed under Obama. The U.N. Security Council issued a rare statement on Myanmar condemning the violence, but a resolution rebuking Myanmar’s army is likely impossible, given China’s all but certain veto. And all the while, the exodus of Rohingya continues.
The world loves to crown heroes from despair. Suu Kyi, 72, comes from one of her country’s most storied families. Her father, General Aung San, founded the modern army and led the movement for independence from Britain in the 1940s. When she was still a child, he was assassinated and hailed as a martyr. The country spiraled into civil war, and her mother was later named an ambassador to India and Nepal. Suu Kyi lived abroad as a young adult, studying politics at Oxford and working for the U.N. in New York City. She captured the West’s imagination in 1988 when she defied the military junta and founded the National League for Democracy (NLD), only to be detained as a political prisoner for 15 of the next 21 years. When she was under house arrest, her party won the 1990 elections in a landslide, but the army refused to recognize the victory. She persisted, delivering pro-democracy speeches over the fence separating her from the outside world. Once, though temporarily released, she chose not to visit her husband, who was dying of cancer in Britain, because she knew that if she left her homeland, its military rulers would not allow her to return.
When she was freed in 2010, hope grew that democracy was possible for Myanmar. Obama called her “a hero of mine,” and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised her as “the world’s most renowned and courageous prisoner of conscience.” Washington lauded her with a ceremony to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal, which had been awarded in absentia when she was under house arrest, and the European Parliament presented her with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. When she picked up her 1991 Nobel Prize in Oslo 21 years late, she recited her favorite passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “When the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to me, they were recognizing that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world,” she said. “The Nobel Peace Prize opened up a door in my heart.”
Buried in the good news, an uglier reality remained. For decades, waves of violence and displacement have sent Muslims in Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s west coast, fleeing to Bangladesh. The reasons for the violence against the Rohingya have long been hard to sort out, with a mix of religious, ethnic and economic roots. The Rohingya, a Sunni Muslim ethnic minority group, have lived in northern Rakhine for generations, where the majority of people practice Buddhism. The government has long refused to grant citizenship to the nearly 1 million Rohingya in Rakhine or to recognize them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups, and many in Myanmar believe the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Rakhine is one of Myanmar’s poorest states, and decades of exclusionary policy, including denying the Rohingya the right to vote or to travel without government permission, have deepened underlying tension between the Rohingya and their Rakhine neighbors.
The period before Suu Kyi belatedly collected the Nobel was particularly grim. In 2012, Human Rights Watch documented coordinated government attacks on Muslim villages, mass arrests and blocked aid, part of what they described as an effort to forcibly displace the Rohingya population. When she was receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled again. When she was asked in Europe that summer if the Rohingya were Burmese, she replied, “I do not know.” The remarks raised red flags. “People were surprised,” Derek Mitchell, U.S. ambassador to Myanmar under Obama, recalls. “She was never quite able to address the Rohingya issue to people’s satisfaction overseas.”
In 2015, three years after Suu Kyi had been elected as a lawmaker, Myanmar held its first free elections in 25 years and her party won a landslide victory. Suu Kyi was made State Counsellor, a new position created for her, similar to Prime Minister.
Her powers, though, were limited and the democracy more fragile than anyone wanted to admit. Myanmar’s constitution, written in 2008 by the then ruling military junta, guarantees the army 25% of seats in parliament and veto power over any constitutional change. Suu Kyi cannot become President because her children are British citizens. Even if she could, the army controls key ministries, including Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence, under the leadership of commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. “The NLD’s 2015 campaign promise was that they were the only political party that could confront the military,” says human-rights activist Cheery Zahau in Myanmar. “They have to live up to that promise.”
In May 2016, Suu Kyi told then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that her country needed “space” to address the Rohingya crisis. She advised officials to not use the term Rohingya, arguing to the U.N. that the choice would promote harmony. “She always felt people outside Burma didn’t understand [the Rohingya issue’s] complexities,” says Mitchell. “She’d try to explain, but she has not proven very effective at strategic communication.”
The Obama White House tried to push Suu Kyi to embrace the international community’s help in Rakhine. In dozens of meetings with Obama or senior Administration officials, Suu Kyi would “generally say the right things” about the need to protect human rights and minority rights and to pursue citizenship solutions, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Rhodes says, but she repeatedly argued that she could only go so far.
“She would argue that if she essentially tried to open the door to the international community playing a much greater role there, that would potentially undercut her assuming civilian control of the military,” Rhodes says. “We, and particularly our embassy, would really keep the focus on this issue, and that would at times allow for more incremental progress, like improved humanitarian access, but we were unable to, in the context of their divided politics, secure more structural changes, like addressing the citizenship status of the Rohingya.”
In 2016, Suu Kyi sat down with Obama in the Oval Office. Obama, hoping the message on democratic reforms had been received in Myanmar, lifted U.S. sanctions that had been in place for almost two decades. “Essentially you were restricting the type of investment that could pull Burma toward the international community,” Rhodes says. “We believed that if she and her government were more stable and confident in their position, that they would be in a stronger place to take risks on behalf of the Rohingya.”
Human-rights activists worried that only made things worse. “The message to the army was, you can get away with a token democratic concession, you can retain control, let Aung San Suu Kyi be the figurehead, you don’t have to stop your abuses against the ethnic groups, and the sanctions are all gone,” says Roth, the Human Rights Watch executive director. “The Obama Administration was much too quick to claim victory, so it does deserve some of the blame for what has happened now.”
The Trump administration has been far less engaged. Trump himself has not spoken to Suu Kyi since taking office, according to a National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson. Ambassador Joseph Yun, the special envoy for North Korea policy, visited Myanmar in July and met with Suu Kyi and the army chief, but his trip focused solely on the U.S. relationship with North Korea, not on the Rohingya or humanitarian issues, according to a State Department spokesperson.
Now the scale of the recent violence against the Rohingya may force Trump’s hand. Trump discussed the crisis with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak when he visited Washington in early September, and they agreed that Myanmar needed to end the crisis and allow humanitarian aid. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Suu Kyi, urging the government and the military to facilitate humanitarian aid. The next day, the State Department announced an additional $32 million in aid to help the Rohingya. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy visited Naypyidaw for Suu Kyi’s speech and sat in the front row. He then visited Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, but local Burmese officials stated that he would not be allowed to visit the conflict areas to the north, citing security concerns. An NSC spokesperson tells TIME that military-to-military engagement between the U.S. and Myanmar has so far been nascent and that moving forward will be difficult until Myanmar’s security forces stop the violence and displacement. “We particularly welcome Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment that Burma will accept the return of Rohingya refugees when it is safe to do so,” State Department spokesperson Justin Higgins says. “We call on Burma to allow an investigation into the allegation of abuses.”
In Congress, a range of reactions is on display. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has championed Suu Kyi for decades, called her the week before her speech as public pressure on her rose. He then defended her to the Senate. “She is the same person she was before,” he said. “She is trying to improve conditions.” Senator John McCain of Arizona wrote her a letter, asking her to reverse her decision denying U.N. Human Rights Council access to northern Rakhine. McCain and others also struck language from the National Defense Authorization Act that would have increased U.S. military-to-military engagements with Myanmar’s army. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who participated in Suu Kyi’s Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in 2012, wants Congress to re-evaluate its relationship with the army and Suu Kyi’s government. “At the very least, the leaders who planned and executed this campaign of ethnic cleansing should be sanctioned, all military-to-military contact should be suspended, and preferential trade benefits with Burma should be ended,” she told TIME.
At this junction, managing the military in Myanmar remains crucial, says the country’s top Catholic official, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, appointed by Pope Francis. “Aung San Suu Kyi is walking a tightrope walk,” he says. “Already dark forces are clamoring for return to army rule.”
Helping the Rohingya was an urgent topic at the annual gathering of the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September. Global leaders, from the U.N. Secretary-General to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to European and Asian ministers, discussed the crisis in a series of meetings and speeches. But Trump did not mention Myanmar or the Rohingya crisis in his address to the body.
At home, Suu Kyi wants the world to absorb a different narrative. Hers is a young democracy, she said in her speech, and the world cannot expect it to overcome its challenges in the 18 short months since she has been State Counsellor. She argued that Muslims in Rakhine have equal access to health care and education “without any discrimination,” counter to human-rights groups’ reports. She offered for foreign diplomats to visit Rakhine, but only the parts where Muslims have not fled, so that the international community could learn “why they have chosen to remain in their villages.” Before she spoke, supporters gathered in the capital holding signs supporting her. But others are disappointed. “She was our role model, our icon, our leader, and we loved her because of her values,” says Chit Min Lay, a democracy activist and former political prisoner in Myanmar. “Some people say she’s being pragmatic, but I don’t know why she’s acting this way.”
Two months from now, a new moral leader will draw the world’s attention to the Rohingya. Pope Francis will visit Myanmar in late November, followed by a visit to Bangladesh. The Vatican established diplomatic relations with Myanmar just four months ago, under his leadership, and unlike Suu Kyi, he has regularly defended the Rohingya by name. The expectations for his trip are as high as the challenges, at home and abroad. “I do hope he will address many issues of all people in Myanmar in a way that brings healing, not hatred,” Bo says. “That is the challenge since a section here is not happy to see the real peace.”
Through it all, the Rohingya suffer. Human-rights groups on the ground say the military operations in Rakhine continue, though Suu Kyi claims they ended on Sept. 5. Bangladesh is planning to build a new refugee camp with 14,000 shelters to accommodate the nearly half a million people who have arrived in the past month. The U.N. resident coordinator in Bangladesh, Robert Watkins, believes there could be at least 100,000 more people lined up inside Myanmar trying to cross the Naf River to safety. “They all come with the same story. Their villages have been burned, there are reports of rape, of family members being killed,” he says. “Sadly, no one family’s misery is worse than any other.”
–With reporting by FELIZ SOLOMON/HONG KONG