Myanmar’s Coup Doesn’t Exonerate Aung San Suu Kyi

By Will Howard-Waddingham

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Aung San Suu Kyi is a complex figure.

She brought limited democracy to Myanmar when she won the country’s 2015 elections and ousted an unelected military junta. But her complicity in Myanmar’s 2017 genocide of its Rohingya population made her a pariah in most pro-democracy and human rights circles.

Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup, which ousted Suu Kyi, has shifted the world’s perception of her once again. Imprisoned by a brutal junta that now rules Myanmar and terrorizes its citizens, it’s easy to think of Suu Kyi as an oppressed advocate for democracy rather than a bystander to and collaborator in genocide. Check out this article in The New York Times, which lionizes Suu Kyi and mentions only briefly, seemingly as an afterthought, that she helped abet the murder of the Rohingya.

The world’s change in perception is a mistake. Forgetting the past risks repeating it. Our advocacy for a return to democracy in Myanmar needs to reckon with the country and Suu Kyi’s genocidal histories. Only with such a reckoning can we strive to create a Myanmar that is safe, democratic, and equal for all of its citizens.

From laureate to lethal

Suu Kyi’s legacy wasn’t always so complicated. The daughter of Bogyoke Aung San, a legendary Burmese general who negotiated Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947, Suu Kyi rose to prominence in 1990 when her party, the National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), won Myanmar’s general election. The military junta that ruled Myanmar at the time refused to accept the result of the election and put Suu Kyi under house arrest, but her bravery and continued nonviolent advocacy for democracy won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and made her an icon in the global pro-democracy and human rights movements.

Suu Kyi eventually helped oust the military government in 2015, when the N.L.D. won Myanmar’s general election in a landslide. The junta, sensing the Burmese people’s impatience with military rule and desire for reform, agreed to let Suu Kyi and the N.L.D. form a government. She became Myanmar’s state counsellor and de facto leader, and returned the country to civilian rule for the first time since 1962.

But soon after taking power, Suu Kyi came under fire for her complicity in Myanmar’s violent oppression of its Rohingya population, an Indo-Aryan, Muslim-majority ethnic group. Suu Kyi stood by and refused to intervene as the military carried out a vile campaign of murder, deportation, and rape. When the crisis began in August 2017, Suu Kyi said that reports of ethnic cleansing were an “iceberg of misinformation,” and that the military was simply protecting the “rule of law” against Rohingya terrorists. Later, in December 2019, Suu Kyi visited the International Court of Justice in The Hague and, deflecting accusations of genocide and war crimes, said that “if war crimes have been committed, they will be prosecuted within our military justice system.” Suu Kyi’s laissez-faire approach, which empowered the military to persecute and murder the Rohingya, implicates her in their suffering. 

Myanmar's Military Planned Rohingya Genocide, Rights Group Says - The New  York Times
A group of Rohingya refugees flee Myanmar for Bangladesh in September 2017.
Credit: Adam Dean, The New York Times.

What’s changed?

Myanmar’s rulers. 

The country’s flawed democracy didn’t last for long. The military violently deposed Suu Kyi and reinstalled itself in power in February 2021. That coup has complicated Suu Kyi’s legacy in two significant ways.

First, Myanmar is a more dangerous and less free place now that Suu Kyi is gone and a military junta is back in power. The military government is slaughtering children and peaceful protesters and jailing journalists. Citizens no longer have self-determination over their politics. And the situation has not improved for the Rohingya, who the state continues to oppress. Flawed, genocidal democracy under Suu Kyi looks a lot more appealing when the alternative—and now, the reality—is genocidal military authoritarianism.

Family mourning the death of a protesters who was shot in the chest by security forces on Saturday in Dala, near Yangon.
A family grieves after Myanmar’s security forces slaughtered 90 peaceful protesters on 27 March 2021. Credit: The New York Times.

Second, the coup has demonstrated that Suu Kyi may never have had the power to stop the Rohingya’s suffering. James Silk, the director of the Schell Center for International Human Rights at the Yale Law School, told me in an interview in October 2018 that Suu Kyi may not have been able to resist the genocide even if she had wanted to because it was the military, not her, that held ultimate political power in the country. The February coup made glaringly clear the military’s dominant position in Burmese politics and Suu Kyi’s political subordination as state counsellor. To stay in power, she had to avoid angering the military, which initiated, administered, and strongly supported the genocide. The military may well have deposed her in a coup in 2017 or 2018 had she attempted to protect the Rohingya.

So, does the February coup in any way exonerate Suu Kyi? 

One can certainly make an argument that it does.

The Rohingya very likely would have faced genocide in 2017 even if Suu Kyi had tried to resist it. The only difference if she had? A likely 2017 or 2018 coup and several additional years of terror and violence for the Burmese people at the hands of a brutal junta.

So, it’s worth asking: was Suu Kyi’s complicity in genocide at all justified if it staved off a ruthless military regime, if only briefly? Should we rethink her legacy now that Myanmar is so clearly worse off in her absence? Should the world try to reinstall her as Myanmar’s leader to bring democracy back to the country? 

Does the coup exonerate Aung San Suu Kyi?

The answer to all of those questions should be an unequivocal no.

Collaboration in genocide is a crime regardless of one’s power to stop it.

While Suu Kyi likely did not have the authority to directly bring an end to the violence, she could have used her international notoriety as a pro-democracy advocate and her position as Myanmar’s de facto head of state to call the world’s attention to the Rohingya’s plight and pressure it to intervene on their behalf. If it came to it, she should have been willing to risk losing her political power and personal freedom to fight for her citizens’ most basic rights, even if doing so would have brought about a military coup and taken her to a jail cell. The overthrow and jailing of a democratically elected leader for protecting a group of her citizens could have brought meaningful international attention to the Rohingya’s suffering and perhaps even prompted international action on their behalf. It’s easier for the world to intervene against a rogue, homicidal military than it is against a sovereign democracy.

But Suu Kyi decided to put herself and her power first, collaborating in and sanitizing the Rohingya’s murder. That can’t be forgotten.

Aung San Suu Kyi defends Myanmar from accusations of genocide, at top UN  court | | UN News
Suu Kyi defended Myanmar against accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in December 2019.
Credit: Frank van Beek, International Court of Justice.

We should condemn Myanmar’s military for overthrowing a democratically-elected leader, but still condemn that leader for her genocidal collusion. In genocide, memory is power and amnesia is complicity. If pro-democracy advocates don’t remember Suu Kyi’s crimes, they risk glorifying or even recreating a period in Myanmar’s history that was democratic, yes, but also genocidal. 

Reinstalling the genocidal Suu Kyi would signal that Myanmar is free and safe only if you aren’t Rohingya. Myanmar can’t just go back to the status quo of genocidal democracy. It needs to be free, equal, and democratic for all of its citizens. To create such a country, Myanmar and pro-democracy advocates have to reckon with and make amends for the country’s genocidal past. Reconciliation can happen if and only if Myanmar rejects its most famous genocidal apologist and refuses to reinstall her as its head of state.

What’s a better approach?

Advocates and the international community should step past Suu Kyi and work with the increasingly tolerant Burmese opposition movement to try to build an equal and democratic country.

That tolerance has been a surprising silver lining of the coup. Since the military ousted Suu Kyi in February, some in Myanmar have expressed regret for their complicity in the genocide, and the country’s ethnic and religious divisions are less salient now that there is a common enemy—the military junta—to resist. The opposition to the junta is multiracial and inclusive, and could create an inclusive democracy if it ever restores civilian rule. 

Masked protestors marching and waving flags in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on May 6.
Protesters in Yangon demonstrate against the military government on May 6, 2021.
Credit: Getty Images.

If the opposition succeeds, a first action item should be reforming Myanmar’s 2008 constitution. That constitution gives the military an outsized role in politics by guaranteeing it a quarter of the seats in the Burmese parliament and giving it control over Myanmar’s most powerful ministries, including defense and home affairs. Civilian leaders will not have meaningful autonomy from Myanmar’s military or the authority to resist its discriminatory and genocidal tendencies until the constitution is changed and the military is removed from politics.

What can we do?

The opposition won’t succeed if it doesn’t have the world’s support. We all have a role to play. Consider donating to non-profit organizations like the Clear View Project or Mutual Aid Myanmar, which support protesters and fund Burmese government workers that are boycotting the regime. While you’re at it, think about donating to the Buddhist Humanitarian Project, which supports Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

By working together and refusing to forget Myanmar’s genocidal history, we can help the country turn from tyrannical majoritarianism to true representative democracy.

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Title Image Credit: BBC News