‘The honeymoon is over’ for Aung San Suu Kyi

In the dock: Is the West falling out of love with a former beacon of human rights?

A year after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in Myanmar, she has been criticised for her handling of human rights concerns. Has she failed — or do we simply expect too much from her?

For 21 years Aung San Suu Kyi was the world’s most famous political prisoner. Trapped in a house on the edge of Rangoon, the largest city in her native Myanmar (often called Burma in the West), she was a lone voice in support of liberty and democracy in one of the world’s most repressive military dictatorships.

But in 2010 Myanmar opened up. Money poured into a previously closed country. And in 2015 Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a historic victory in the country’s first free election since 1990. To the outside world, it was Myanmar’s version of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid.

A year on, however, problems are mounting for Suu Kyi, now 71 years-old.

The military has been accused of committing war crimes against the Rohingya people, the country’s Muslim community. Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, denies them citizenship and sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who are trying to make the country Islamic.

With journalists banned from Rakhine state, where many of the Rohingya live, Myanmar’s government has been trying to counter allegations that its soldiers have been raping and killing civilians.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya live in make-shift refugee camps following an uprising of violence five years ago, and there is disturbing evidence that the current military campaign is even more vicious than previous pogroms.

When asked about the conflict, Suu Kyi acknowledged that problems existed in Rakhine, but said ethnic cleansing was “too strong” a term to use.

Her reluctance to give interviews and her downplaying of the conflict have led some to question whether Suu Kyi is the benevolent heroine she was previously believed to be.

Matthew Smith, chief executive of a human rights NGO based in South-East Asia, believes that Suu Kyi’s attitude to the Rohingya betrays her “true colours”. Suu Kyi would not be the first darling of the West whose flawshave become clear in a position of power. Is Smith’s analysis correct?

Great expectations

Absolutely, say some. Suu Kyi cannot act the part of the oppressed opposition leader anymore; she is in charge. And she leads a state whose military is engaging in war crimes. By refusing to stop or condemn the campaign, she is playing to her people’s worst instincts. The West should stop supporting her.

Our expectations were far too high in the first place, reply others. Suu Kyi has an impeccable record defending human rights, and she cannot be expected to solve every problem in one of Asia’s poorest countries after just 12 months. Her critics need to appreciate that she, like Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Barack Obama, is only a person. And like all people, she is not perfect.

You Decide

  1. Has Aung San Suu Kyi revealed her true colours?
  2. Should we lower our expectations of politicians? Or raise them?


  1. Write down five qualities that make a good leader and compare lists with the person next to you.
  2. Research one former leader who entered office as a hero for democracy and give a five minute presentation to your class about them. Did they live up to expectations?

Some People Say...

“It is not power that corrupts, but fear.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That Myanmar’s one million Muslims face some of the worst persecution in the world. They have been denied Burmese citizenship since 1982. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country in recent years, and hundreds have died in a recent military crackdown.
What do we not know?
Given that the military has blocked rights groups and independent journalists travelling to Rakhine, an awful lot. It is impossible to independently verify a lot of the stories that arise from the conflict. But witnesses who have fled to Bangladesh, as well as satellite images of burned-out villages, tell a chilling story of destruction.
What is believed?
Some believe that Suu Kyi is guilty of playing down war crimes, while others think that she cannot possibly cure all Myanmar’s ills in one year.

Word Watch

Military dictatorships
The Myanmar military is still powerful as it is guaranteed 25% of seats in the country’s parliament.
A system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa, 1948–1991.
Ethnic cleansing
The United Nations definition of ethnic cleansing is “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group”.
Non-governmental organization: Fortify Rights is a non-profit body, registered in Switzerland and the USA.
Every problem
The Burmese military has been engaged in conflict with separatist campaigns all around the country’s borderlands for decades. The most famous of these is the conflict in Shan state, in the east of the country.
The World Bank reports 37.5% of the population currently living in poverty. In South-East Asia, only Cambodia is poorer.
Pronounced Va-wen-sa, founded Solidarity, the Soviet Bloc’s first independent trade union. Poland’s first president after communism’s fall, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

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