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Poetic justice in Myanmar?

Back in 2015, in advance of the elections that brought her to power, I wrote what was then one of the first critical takes on Aung San Suu Kyi for the New York Times.

Even then, Suu Kyi’s failure to stand up for the rights of the Rohingya in the face of the shocking persecution that they were facing was noticeable and reason, to my mind, to call into question her sainted image in the western media.

The most charitable explanation for her silence then was that it was cold political calculation and that she did not have the political capital to spare on an unpopular cause.

This was not reasoning I found particularly persuasive or praiseworthy.

As I wrote in the NYT: “If Suu Kyi is remaining silent on the plight of the Rohingyas because she’s afraid that speaking out would cost her an election, she doesn’t deserve to come to power. And if her silence leads to the deaths of more and more innocent people, she doesn’t deserve our respect either.”

The rest is, as they say, history.

Though perhaps it would be more accurate to state that for the Rohingya, who had to suffer a brutal pogrom in 2017 that saw thousands raped and killed and three quarters of a million driven from their homes to seek refuge in Bangladesh across the border, where they remain, it is very much the present.

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In one of her most celebrated essays, Suu Kyi famously wrote: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

How true and how poignant those words ring today. Who knew when she wrote those words in 1991 that she would be speaking about herself?

Suu Kyi’s continued silence about the extent and nature of the genocide against the Rohingya has long ago shattered the credibility and respect of this Nobel Peace Prize laureate, leading to her being stripped of her Ambassador of Conscience award, Amnesty International’s highest honour, in 2018.

Indeed, silence is not, in fact, the right word.

Not only has she continued to dismiss and deny the rights of the Rohingya in shocking language, she has gone as far as to downplay and defend the pogrom against them, most notably and shamefully at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019.

Perhaps she thought that that was the price she needed to pay to remain in power.

Yesterday she learned what any student of history could have told her: that turning a blind eye to injustice in the hopes of ameliorating it (a charitable interpretation) or making common cause with evil in the hopes that you can come out ahead (a more realistic one) is not only morally indefensible, it never works anyway.

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