The Silence of a Laureate–Will Aung San Suu Kyi Speak Out?

When I was growing up in Bangladesh, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi never ceased to amaze me. Burma is right next door to us geographically, but as a little girl all I understood about the military junta in Burma was primarily what I learned through pictures.

I just could not wrap my head around what kind of threat a tiny woman, with her iconic bright and colorful flowers carefully and always tucked behind her ear, posed to these big men with guns. Clearly the military’s worries went beyond what Suu Kyi represented to them physically.

This woman personifies the heart and the spirit of the long, winding road that Burma has had to democracy.

In my adult years, Suu Kyi’s imprisonment was constant, continuous and lasted well over a decade. Forced to be a prisoner in her own home, Suu Kyi was world renowned to be a fighter for the core principles of democracy. Nobody embodied the fight for a people to choose their government the way Burma’s Suu Kyi did. And it is clear that “The Lady” is not done fighting after her much celebrated release in 2010.

The legendary former political prisoner, perhaps the most famous hostage of our time, has recently declared her willingness to run for Burma’s Presidency saying, “… As a political party leader, I also have to have the courage to be president.” Suu Kyi went on to state that her political party will work to remove an existing clause in the Burmese constitution barring her from the presidency. Suu Kyi’s words signal a new era in a country which is still waking up from the tight grip of  five decades of military rule.

Could anything be more politically dramatic than witnessing the woman replace the very regime that placed her under arrest, separated her from her family and barred her from taking office even after winning landslide elections? Aung San is arguably one of the most romanticized political figures of modern times.

However, it is what Suu Kyi is not saying that disturbs this picture of triumph.

This summer, ongoing cultural tension between Burma’s Muslim population, the Rohingyas–who are denied citizenship and legal rights by the government–reached new heights as social media helped propel the issue to global attention. Religious and ethnic violence displaced almost 80,000 Rohingya people from their homes, beginning in June and, to make matters worse neighboring Bangladesh has closed off entry of Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Burma. Human Rights Watch has issued a new report documenting the role Burmese Security forces play in the violence.

Burma’s president suggested that the Muslim minority should be physically moved out of the country, while the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, stated that Bangladesh cannot help the Rohingyas. Bangladesh has even shut off foreign NGOs from being able to assist the thousands of people trapped between two countries and in desperate need of food and medical services.

But Aung San has remained silent on this issue, and that silence is deafening. How can a woman the world has watched fight for her people against the might of a military junta for decades not have a word to say when an entire part of her country’s population is being violently attacked? It is shocking, to say the least. It also makes us wonder what kind of leader she would be, and how different her government would be from the military rule that preceded it?

And why is the world quiet about Suu Kyi’s silence?  This is where the politics gets personal and begins to implicate all of us. When I first mentioned that I wanted to write about how Aung San has failed the Rohingyas, many people were shocked that I would “attack” a woman the world holds so dear. No one wants to hear anything bad about her. We want to believe that the fight she waged for a “free” Burma includes the Rohingya people as well.

It got me thinking that when it comes to women leaders, women in positions of power, we still tend to gender them. We do not want anything to taint the perfect portrait of grace and political sacrifice we have built in our hearts and minds. We imagine and worship her as a maternal political warrior, and that is how we want her to remain. Even if this can be a considered a positive stereotype, it still is a stereotype.

Commentators have pointed out that Aung San is in a huge political bind over this issue. She doesn’t want to rock the boat before elections take place in 2015. If she supports the Muslim Rohingyas, she might decrease her standing with Burma’s Buddhists.

But staying silent as the war on Rohingyas rages on, as both the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments dust their hands of any responsibility, is wrong. And there is no single figure who could draw the world’s attention and create a solution to the crisis the way Aung San could. We have waited decades to see Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi ascend to what we all believed was her rightful political throne. She even won the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison for her people.

And it just may be the Rohingyas who hold the key to Suu Kyi’s political destiny. Time to show us who you would be as the leader of your country and speak out.

Photo via user Htoo Tay Zar licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.


Anushay Hossain began her feminist career as an intern at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) where she worked on microfinance for women and girls in her native country, Bangladesh. A University of Virginia graduate, Anushay joined the Feminist Majority Foundation's Nobel Peace Prize nominated Campaign for Afghan Women before completing her MA in Gender and Development at the University of Sussex. She spent a year at the United Nations Development Fund for Women's (UNIFEM UK) London office before returning to Washington, DC where she invests the majority of her work analyzing the impact of US foreign policy on the health and rights of women and girls around the world.