Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s iconic leader, is sacrificing her moral authority for political expediency. By failing to speak out against repression — and, more broadly, by not doing enough to help her country grow and prosper — she risks losing both her power and her reputation. Suu Kyi, whose years leading the resistance to the Burmese junta earned her the Nobel Peace Prize, has dismayed former admirers by refusing to stop or even denounce what the United Nations calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in her own country. Ever since militant members of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority attacked police stations and an army camp last month, security forces and local Buddhist vigilantes appear to have launched a brutal campaign against them. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed, and nearly 300,000 refugees have fled across the border to makeshift camps in Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi, mindful of the near-universal loathing of the Rohingya among Myanmar’s other communities, has blasted global criticism of this crisis as fake news; officials have accused Rohingya of setting fire to their own villages. Critics, some of whom have called on the Nobel committee to strip Suu Kyi of her prize, are right to take her to task.
Suu Kyi can’t single-handedly eradicate anti-Rohingya prejudice, nor does she control the still-powerful Burmese military. But she could at least limit the army’s depredations by demanding that civilians be protected and that journalists and UN monitors be allowed into the affected area. Her government could send aid for the refugees rather than simply allow countries like Turkey to do so. And she could begin to lay out a narrative that sketches a path to integrating the Rohingya into Burmese society, while implementing the recommendations made by the Kofi Annan-led commission she herself appointed to look into their plight.
She has practical as well as moral cause to act. Unless the military plans somehow to kill or expel the roughly 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar, its scorched-earth campaign is guaranteed only to breed further resentment. Meanwhile, the indiscriminate response is embittering Myanmar’s relations with Muslim nations from Turkey to Indonesia,
and has made the Rohingya cause a rallying cry for extremists across Southeast Asia and beyond.
To fight back, Suu Kyi needs to do more than speak out; she needs to lead more effectively than she’s done in the nearly year and a half since she took power. When it comes to the economy in particular, her administration has been plagued by inefficiency and indecisiveness. Though reforms to laws governing investments and companies have begun to move forward, the direction of economic policy remains too murky. Regulations are as stifling as ever; too many policy decisions are delayed by micromanagement. Foreign investment in the last fiscal year shrunk more than 30 percent from the year before.
Unless Suu Kyi’s government can reverse this situation and give young Burmese more hope in their economic prospects, they will provide all-too-ready fodder for extremists on both sides of the Rohingya divide. A message of tolerance might be a hard sell right now. But if anyone in Myanmar has the power and (still) the authority to make it, it’s Aung San Suu Kyi.