Some years ago, during a time when Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was in self-imposed exile, an American friend asked me about her. He asked if I thought she could one day be a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. I was shocked at the question. Having lived in Pakistan for many years when she had been head of the government, I knew too well how corrupt her regime had been. “She is one of the most corrupt politicians to have ever led the country,” I said. “She and her husband have robbed the country of billions.” My American friend looked at me in disbelief.
This brief exchange revealed to me how false images of certain public figures can become cultivated in the powerful countries of the West. Such images can be at great contrast to realities that those close to the situation clearly see. Women leaders from the Third World who can speak good English are particular beneficiaries of such largesse.
Over the past few years something similar has happened with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar and daughter of the military general who founded the country in 1947. Suu Kyi has been awarded just about every honor and distinction known to man, as a fighter for democracy and leader for human rights.
Recent events in that country tell us otherwise. As the Myanmar army has led a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority, Ms. Suu Kyi has not only remained silent, but has in fact actively defended the actions of her army.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called the treatment of the Rohingya minority at the hands of Myanmar authorities “ethnic cleansing.” In his words: “Can you tell me a better term to describe what is being done to the Rohingyas?”
Over 400,000 desperate and destitute people have been forced to flee their homes in Myanmar and cross the border into a neighboring country fleeing for their lives. The stories of killing, rape, and torture narrated by these helpless people are too painful to recount. And in the aftermath there is clear photographic evidence that their entire villages have been torched so they may never be able to return.
Ms. Suu Kyi has been criticized for not speaking up against the horrors being perpetrated against the Rohingyas by her own army. I wish that is all she had done. Far from not speaking up, she has actively defended the Army’s actions and called reports about atrocities “fake news.” She has said calling the treatment of Rohingyas “ethnic cleansing, is too strong a term”. A late-night show host recently mocked her by saying “would it be okay to call it ethnic dusting?”
Now almost half a million destitute people are fighting for their survival in squalid camps in Bangladesh, a poor country hardly equipped to handle such an influx. Could these camps become a breeding ground for the next generation of jihadi fighters? Muslims who rise up against oppression are easily labeled terrorists.
It is also said that Ms. Suu Kyi is unable to do anything because the power is not with her, but with the army. I would have been willing to forgive her, if that were the case. In fact, there is much evidence from recent history that this leader of Myanmar has been an apologist for the army’s actions and actually harbors deep-seated resentment against all Muslims in general. In 2013 she was angered that BBC World News had sent a Muslim journalist, Mishal Husain, to interview her about the treatment of Muslim minorities in her country. Ms. Husain apparently asked too many pointed questions about treatment of minorities. Peter Popham of the British newspaper The Independent has described Ms. Suu Kyi’s position on the Rohingya issue as “one of purposeful ambiguity for political gain.”
“It is not power that corrupts, but fear of losing power,” Ms. Suu Kyi is quoted as having said some years ago. How true.
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, published in August 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, D.C.