How Aung San Suu Kyi Fell From Grace as a Human Rights Icon

When Ben Rhodes first met Aung San Suu Kyi she exuded the all traits that made her such an international icon for human rights and democracy. The year was 2012, and Ben Rhodes, who was the deputy national security advisor, was accompanying Barack Obama in an historic visit to Myanmar. As he puts it, this meeting was the high water mark for her moral authority. There was a hopefulness, surrounding her, he says.

Now seven years later, she has been stripped of many international accolades, honors and prizes.  At issue is the fact that as the most powerful civilian leader in Myanmar she refused to intervene against, or even publicly condemn, a genocide committed by the government against a religious and ethnic minority.  Some 700,000 ethnic Rohingya have fled Myanmar amid what a UN official has called a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. All the the while, Aung San Suu Kyi was silent. 

So what happened to Aung San Suu Kyi? How did a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent decades under house arrest in an elegant pursuit of democracy and justice in Myanmar fall so from grace? And was the international community, including the Obama administration, wrong about her all along? 

Ben Rhodes grapples with these questions and more in a new piece in The Atlantic that combines some of his own self-reflection with fresh reporting, which he discusses on the podcast.

We kick off setting the historic context for Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to prominence and the circumstances of her persecution and house arrest before having a longer conversation about the causes and implications of her becoming a bystander to genocide. 

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UPDATE (April 2020):   Since this episode was first published in August 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi’s star as a human rights icon has continued to fade. In the fall of 2019, the traveled to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to defend her country from charges of genocide against the Rohingya minority, nearly one million of whom were driven from their homes in an orchestrated campaign of violence in 2017.

What is particularly interesting about that lawsuit at the International Court of Justice is that the plaintiff in the case is the tiny African country of The Gambia. In a more recent episode of the Global Dispatches podcast, an expert from Human Rights Watch explains why The Gambia is suing Myanmar for Genocide of the Rohingya


 What’s up first?


Aung San Suu Kyi has really been the defining figure of Burmese politics over the last several decades. She is the daughter of Aung San, the “George Washington” of Burma. He was assassinated right before independence when she was only two years old. She ended up growing up in India where her mother was an ambassador. She moved to the UK, married a British citizen, and entered politics by accident. In 1988, her mother had a stroke and Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma to be with her. At that exact moment, student protests were rocking the country against a brutal, reclusive military government. Aung San Suu Kyi addressed half a million people in the then capital. She became the leader of the opposition and won the next election overwhelmingly. However, the junta put her in prison, largely under house arrest. She became a Mandela like figure. She was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For the next two decades she was under house arrest and after she was released, she re-entered politics.


During her time under house arrest, she displayed profound personal courage.


When she was campaigning in 1989, a firing squad of soldiers faced her and told her to turn around. She refused and kept walking towards them. They were given the order to shoot, but they could not kill the daughter of their national hero. Under house arrest, she was in extreme isolation. During one of her releases, a mob of men were released around her vehicle and there was a riot where dozens of people were killed, but she somehow escaped. She was subjected to a lot of trauma and had to demonstrate enormous courage. For instance, her husband died while she was under house arrest. The military said she could go back to the UK to be with him, but obviously they would not let her back into the country, so she chose to stay. She wrote passionately about human rights in series of essays that were embraced by the likes of Desmond Tutu. She earned her reputation as a human rights icon.

Going back to those early years of the Obama administration, what did diplomacy towards Myanmar look like?


Obama campaigned on the return to diplomacy. When he said that line, “we will extend a hand if you unclench your fist,” one of the countries in mind was Burma. We had an envoy, Derek Mitchell, and he began to explore whether they could open up and change their governance. We saw some initial signs that they were prepared to go in a different direction. Then, in 2011, a new president from the military started to allow for more media freedom, released political prisoners, allowed exiled Burmese individuals to return, and freed Aung San Suu Kyi. The Obama administration reciprocated, appointing Derek Mitchell as ambassador and welcomed them in from the cold.


When was the first time you met Aung San Suu Kyi?


It was in 2012. Barack Obama travelled to Burma shortly after his re-election. It was extraordinary, because we landed in the airport and it was really a backwards infrastructure. We went to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, which was powerful. There was a real sense of hopefulness. She had re-entered parliament and was discussing learning the intricacies of parliamentary maneuvers and how to make the democracy that she had been writing about real through institutional mechanisms. After we left this meeting, I was in the car with Obama and he said, “I used to be the face on the poster and your image always ends up fading.” When you’re in politics it is hard to maintain your status as an icon. Suu Kyi said she was not an icon but a politician, which kind of foreshadows some of the things that have happened.


It was in 2012 that she came to the U.S., right?


Yes, it was kind of a victory lap. She travelled around the country and thanked different constituencies that had supported her. Obama welcomed her to the White House and it was a very hopeful moment.


I remember her from a press conference at the United Nations. She refused to say the word “Rohingya”. That signaled to me that there could be something dark lurking under this icon. What was the moment you realized that the Rohingya issue might be something in which her moral authority would be undermined?


In 2012 the Rohingya issue was prominent. In Burma, both Muslims and people of South Asian descent are discriminated against. There have been previous incidents in Burmese history where the Rohingya were targeted and driven across the border to Bangladesh. They were a persecuted minority. In 2012, there was an outbreak of violencedue to an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya Muslim. When Obama sat down with her, he said we needed to work to resolve this issue and that she needed to use her moral authority. In private, she would say the word Rohingya and acknowledge the difficulties they faced. However, she would indicate that this was a very complicated issue and that the vast majority of Burmese were prejudiced against Rohingya. If she made that central to her agenda, the military would use that against her. Her plan was to democratize the country and put herself more in power to where she could help with such issues. While there was a warning sign that she did not want to spend her political capital on this issue, she did privately say the right things. So how do we try to work on the democratization of Burma while also trying to help this persecuted minority that does not have any popular support?


It seems that by 2015 in her landslide victory with the NLD party, the central tension was between her desire to act like a politician and help the persecuted Rohingya minority.


When she was elected, I would raise these issues with her. She would say she was trying to democratize the country and reform the constitution. There are constitutional amendments that prevent her from being President. It is a strange amendment that says if you have foreign born children, you can’t be president, clearly targeting her. Her argument was always that she had to finish the job of reforming the constitution before she could do anything about the Rohingya population. Our argument was that she needed to speak out on this and use her moral authority as the most popular politician in the country. She was always reluctant to do so. Her answer was, after she became State Counsellor in 2016, to appoint Kofi Annan to chair a commission that would look into this issue and make recommendations.  


But then, the Annan Commission said the Rohingya should be granted full citizenship rights and she did not implement that recommendation.


Well, two things happened. In October, 2016 violence broke out again and this time a new group, the Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked Burmese police outposts and killed several people. The response was way disproportionate displacing tens of thousands of people. This problem had begun to boil over. In the summer of 2017, the Annan Commission issued its recommendations that the Rohingya population needed to be granted citizenship to be protected. Days later, there was another attack from this Rohingya insurgent group that killed more Burmese police. This time it felt like the military had a plan to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya. 700,000 Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh. While this was happening, Suu Kyi said nothing or denied it, which is what drew international condemnation on her.


What is going through your mind at this point?


With her, I just felt profound disappointment. She basically chose her own power over fighting for human rights. She famously wrote that “the ultimate freedom is freedom from fear” and that “people who don’t have power fear the scorns of power, and those with power are corrupted and don’t want to give it up.” She transformed into what she argued against, a politician who would not take a moral stand if it compromised their politics.


Is it possible that she is a racist?


She is not in charge of these operations, so to be fair to her she cannot order or terminate these operations. If she could, I do not think she would perpetrate an ethnic cleansing. She is prejudiced enough to where she sees the Rohingya as less Burmese than other people in Burma. The majority ethnic group is Burman and the majority religious group is Buddhism. She is Burman and Buddhist. I think she does harbor some of the prejudice you see throughout the country. She is a traumatized individual herself. It is hard for us to know what 20 years of extreme isolation, house arrest, and threats do to compromise your ability to empathize with people who are different.


I went back and talked to people in Burma about what had happened. One of the things that has occurred is an explosion of social media. A country that had almost zero internet penetration went to 95% penetration in a few years. The entire internet experience is through Facebook. You see an explosion of hate speech against Rohingya. The tragedy of Burma is something that is unique to its country, but it also shares this global trend of nationalism, religious identity, and social media presence supercharging that.


Are there any broader foreign policy lessons you could draw from this?


There are trends that are really important for people to see. One is social media and this rise in nationalism. The Burmese National Security Advisor told me quite candidly that this would be easier in the 1990’s when democracy was spreading. Now, Burma is in a neighborhood where that is not a trend. The role of China here is critically important. They do not care about human rights and the Burmese know they can turn to the Chinese. I do think what this means is that the international community needs more tools to deal with crises like these. Accountability through the International Criminal Court is important. Further, spotlighting instances like this and putting Burma on the diplomatic offensive at the UN are tools that could moderate their behavior.


I also discuss the debate over sanctions. To be fair, the Obama administration got a lot of critique for lifting sanctions on Burma. I have come to think that the bad actors in the military are the best sanctions evaders as it is. China is a hedge against sanctions because countries can turn to China if the U.S. cuts them off. But you have to debate the role for sanctions, and there is a role that is targeted at bad actors. I think mobilizing international diplomatic pressure is really all we have to fight back against these trends. One lesson is that we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket. I wanted to draw out through this story how essentially, it is tempting to view other countries through the prism of a single icon, but we have to see the whole picture.  


Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice