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Aung San Suu Kyi's appeals to global community over Rohingya crisis: Tracing vanishing glory of 'Myanmar's Mandela'

Editor's Note: De facto leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the nation in a live TV address on 19 September, 2017 where the Nobel laureate, first time in several months, broke her silence in the ongoing Rohingya exodus. This article, originally published on 6 September, 2017. is being republished in the view of the address.

Myanmar's state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991 for her "non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights" is facing mounting criticism for her handling of the Rohingya crisis in the country and for human rights violations. She vowed to create a world free from the homeless in her Nobel text and bringing peace to her troubled nation was her priority. However, the very characteristics that she embodied are being questioned now. With Myanmar facing increasing criticism from world over for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims and human rights violations, demands to take back Suu Kyi's Nobel prize have also been rising.

A leader who once represented great hope and exemplified courage is today being condemned by fellow Nobel winners and other world leaders. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize called on Suu Kyi to condemn the tragic and shameful treatment of the Rohingya population.

United for human rights calls her a living expression of people's determination to gain political and economic freedom. Yet, under her leadership, the freedom of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar is not just under threat but is lost. They are fleeing persecution and migrating to either Bangladesh or India. At least 1,23,000 Rohingyas have crossed the border into Bangaldesh to flee violence in Rakhine state.

Many started calling her 'Myanmar's Mandela' for her role in trying to bring democracy in Myanmar. With remarkable similarities between Suu Kyi and Mandela's life, she was seen as this decade's answer to Mother Teresa and Mandela. The Guardian writes that she was like a saintly figure whom every politician and celebrity wanted to touch in the hope that some of the sanctity rubbed off.

Suu Kyi was lauded on the global stage and praised for her refusal to incite violence while under house arrest after winning the presidential election, which Myanmar's ruling military did not accept. She took over a disturbed nation and her task was cut out from the very beginning. She had to put the balm on numerous wounds left behind by a military dictatorship. She was expected to re-unite the country and bring peace to conflicted areas.

After just over a year of accolades and praises, the picture seems bleak and dark. As CNN reports, protesters in Myanmar are burning effigies of Suu Kyi because they are furious at her failure to act while Myanmar's military lays waste to land held by the Rohingyas. It has sparked public anger after a mass exodus of the minority community fleeing persecution.

The latest exodus began on 25 August, after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in Rakhine leading to a violent offensive by the Myanmar Army.

 Aung San Suu Kyis appeals to global community over Rohingya crisis: Tracing vanishing glory of Myanmars Mandela

Protesters hold signs against the Myanmar government during a rally in support of Rohingya. Reuters

Suu Kyi broke her deafening silence for the first time on the violence on Rohingyas on Wednesday, alleging a "huge iceberg of misinformation" was distorting the picture of the Rohingya crisis.

In her first comments since Rohingya militant attacks sparked unrest, Suu Kyi said fake news was "calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities" and to promote "the interest of the terrorists."

She further said that terrorism is new for Myanmar but the government will do its best to make sure that this does not expand and spread all over Rakhine.

Suu Kyi, however, did not condemn the violence or proclaimed support for the Rohingyas. Rather, she insinuated that the reports of the Rohingya crisis only promote "the interests of the terrorists."

CNN quoted founder of human rights groups Fortify Rights Matthew Smith as saying, "These are mass killings and they're taking place right now and Aung San Suu Kyi's office is not only doing nothing to stop it – in some ways they're throwing fuel on the fire."

Suu Kyi, who was seen as an example of the "power of the powerless" has been under criticism since 2013 for not standing up to the Rohingyas. In an interview, she had said, "This is what the world needs to understand, that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well."

She has also been censured for her unwillingness to criticise the military, against whom she initially fought. The Washington Post Editorial Board wanted to point her towards her Nobel text. The text summoned an aim "to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless ... a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace."

However, as the board concluded, "This is not the world of the Rohingya in today's Burma."

Apart from the Rohingyas, public anger has also been rising because of a spur in online defamation cases and a legal framework that still allows generals to jail people. Myanmar Now reported that online defamation cases have skyrocketed since Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy came to power in 2016, raising concerns about the freedom of expression in Myanmar. Civilian critics, journalists and media professionals have been targeted.

Even as the pressure builds up, Suu Kyi seems in no hurry to amend this law. "In the last year, we've seen an alarming increase in the number of people being arrested and charged for their peaceful online activities – in some cases, simply sharing images or articles which mock the military or the government," James Gomez, Amnesty International Director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said.

People who remember her "electric" speeches during 15-years of her house arrest lament her questionable leadership style now. The Guardian quoted a researcher with Human Rights Watch as saying, "She was funny. She was informative. She was principled… And I think it's lamentable that she's not doing the equivalent of that now."

Critics claim that she is legitimising genocide by not speaking out against the persecution that the Rohingyas face and she has often been accused of abandoning the principles for which she was awarded the peace prize.

Interesting, when she went to Norway to collect the peace prize, she was asked if she considers Rohingyas as citizens of Myanmar and she replied, "I don’t know."

Her conspicuous silence on the Rohingyas despite global outrage and her inability to lift some of the draconian restrictions has slowly but evidently led to a fall in popularity. As the military continues to wage war against ethnic groups in Myanmar, some label Suu Kyi as a "democratic dictator" and Japan Times notes that she is a one-person show who surrounds herself with close friends and loyalists without nurturing a new generation of leaders.

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Updated Date: Sep 19, 2017 11:58:39 IST

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