Anger and criticism rained down on Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week amid reports that she dismissed coverage of Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis as “fake news.” That’s not quite true. The Lady actually told Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a phone call, that photos tweeted by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek allegedly showing dead Rohingyas had nothing to do with the ongoing violence in her country. She did call that fake news.
The photos were deleted from Simsek’s Twitter account, but Suu Kyi also said such misinformation abets Rohingya insurgents—she called them “terrorists,” just as the Burmese army does. The insurgents attacked security posts and a military base last month, sparking the current military crackdown that has killed more than 400 people and sent some 125,000 Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh.
The backlash against Suu Kyi shows how much her once-ardent supporters have become disenchanted with their former “democracy icon.” They have cause: Suu Kyi is showing an increasingly autocratic streak, interested in self-preservation, intolerant of criticism, and looking ever less like the angel of human rights who won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Events of recent months and especially recent weeks reveal clearly that Aung San Suu Kyi has developed a noticeable preference for realpolitik over any [devotion to] human rights,” says Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia. “She has consistently backpedaled from being an outspoken defender of human rights and has said she’s ‘just a politician.’”
Sen. John McCain, a Suu Kyi fan, recently wrote her asking that she adhere to the country’s human rights obligations, and he suggested that the government’s actions “may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Even Malala Yousafzai has joined in the criticism. "Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment [of the Rohingya],” Malala tweeted this week. "I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting."
Malala and the world may be waiting a while.
Suu Kyi has shown no inclination to challenge the military crackdown, perhaps for fear of angering the generals who permitted the general election that brought her National League for Democracy to power, but who still control the most important levers of power. The brass may have retreated to their barracks and ceded nominal control to Suu Kyi as “state counselor,” but they still control the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs and have reserved 25 percent of the People’s Assembly’s 440 seats for the military.
“She’s very careful about how far she can push the generals,” one analyst said at a recent Bangkok forum on Burma, noting that it would not take much for the former junta to roar back to direct rule.
There’s some question about whether Suu Kyi cares much about Rohingyas in the first place. She’s a Buddhist traditionalist and a brahmin—daughter of revered independence hero the late Gen. Aung Saw—in a majority Buddhist nation that sees the Muslim Rohingyas as foreigners who have no claims to citizenship regardless of birth and who should be evicted, their property confiscated. Many Buddhists citizens shrug off reports of suffering among fleeing Rohingyas—believing the refugees are in fact “Bengalis” who migrated illegally from Bangladesh.
Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who is one of Myanmar’s anti-Muslim leaders (and who once referred to himself as the “the Burmese bin Laden”) criticized Suu Kyi’s civilian government late last month in the capital, Yangon. “Only the military’s commander in chief can protect the lives and the properties of the people,” the Associated Press quoted him saying. “The military is the only one that can give a lesson to tame the Bengali terrorists.”
That is not an isolated viewpoint in the country—as Suu Kyi undoubtedly knows.
As the crackdown continues in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where most of the country’s 1 million Rohingya live, reports detail executions, rapes and other outrages. The United Nations Human Rights Commission—which is not allowed into the affected areas—says satellite data show the burning of entire Rohingya villages. Suu Kyi, however, rejects talk of ethnic cleansing as “too strong,” saying only that the army is conducting “clearance operations” against insurgents, the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or ARSA.
“Her handling of this ongoing calamity that has befallen the Rohingya minority is nothing less than a profound leadership failure,” Kine tells The Daily Beast.
Suu Kyi also betrays a nationalist sensibility not dissimilar to the white-protective rhetoric of some Trump supporters in the United States, suggesting that Rakhine citizens fear being overwhelmed by hordes of Rohingyas. “In the Rakhine, it’s not just the Muslims who are nervous and worried,” she said last December. “The Rakhine are worried, too. They are worried about the fact that they are shrinking as a Rakhine population, percentage-wise.”
Such comments don’t inspire much faith amongst the hard-hit minority, who have even seen humanitarian aid to Rakhine cut off.
And it’s fair to say that Suu Kyi will not heed U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ plea that her government immediately grant the Rohingya nationality or legal-residence status.
This comes in the face of “reports of mass killings,” says Human Rights Watch’s Kine. “The government of Myanmar is utterly failing to protect the most fundamental rights of its Rohingya minority,” he says.
Some months ago, Suu Kyi criticized outside news coverage and the international community as unfair and unhelpful, insisting that Myanmar be given time to sort things out for itself. That sounded remarkably like “just a politician” telling the “dishonest” media and foreigners to butt out.