Van Lal Thuam Lian @ Thuama imagines the feelings in Aung San Suu Kyi’s innermost being.
Thuama imagines the possibility of a hidden heart deep inside Aung San Suu Kyi, heavy and weighed down with grief for all the sufferings of the Rohingya and yet constrained by the realities of her difficult position, but nonetheless wanting to heal all the wounds in Myanmar. This is his attempt to draw a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi as Thuama wants her to be and to feel inside – aching and compassionate.
Aung San Suu Kyi, once hailed as the champion of democracy and human rights, a great victor in the 2015 election, has become a villain in the eyes of the international community. Almost all her awards have been stripped away and she is considered to be a heartless villain who declines to throw her arms around the marginalized Rohingya. Has the former mother of the downtrodden, after coming to a privileged position in the hierarchical leadership of the country, really become a heartless woman who keeps silent and turns her deaf ears on the loud cries of the helpless people?
Aung San Suu Kyi was released a week after the 2010 election and won a seat in Parliament in 2012. What made the military willing to release Aung San Suu Kyi soon after the election? Why did Thein Sein’s USDP government give Aung San Suu Kyi a chance? Perhaps it was because there was not much Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party could do within the framework of the military-designed 2008 Constitution, which ensures military control at all levels, reserving 25 percent of seats in all legislative assemblies for the military and claiming three important Ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defense – for the military, as well as appointing a military officer as one of the two vice presidents. Indeed, the Myanmar government is constitutionally in detention, it is a government in house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Yangon just to face another house arrest in Naypyidaw – a constitutional house arrest.
Thein Sein’s USDP-led government was precisely meant to prevent the releasing of the Myanmar government from this house arrest. It oversaw the consolidation and protection of the military role in parliamentary politics as its most important function. In spite of all other welcome reforms in different issues, Thein Sein’s reform agenda did not include any constitutional amendment. The NLD government made its overriding aim to release the Myanmar government from this constitutional ‘house arrest,’ as Aung San Suu Kyi promised the people since the very start of her 2015 campaign. But what can she do, when, in order to implement this radical change, she needs more than 75 percent of votes in a parliament where 25 percent are military representatives?
She came to realize that she could not change anything from the outside, and that the only possibility was to go inside to negotiate. Looking at her actions, it appears her strategy is to reconcile and work with the military through compromises, rather than firmly opposing it in order to reach her goals. During their first meeting after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010, President Thein Sein warned and advised her not to use force, but to build trust with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) first if she wished to amend the constitution (Ye Htut, 2019: 53-54). Since her first step into the military-backed government-led political arena, we have observed her tolerate military control and earn their trust; to what end if not to negotiate with them?
Though criticism of her silence about the Rohingya’s plight started to make headlines back in 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi’s transition from human rights icon to practical politician has been more obviously revealed by the resurgence of the Rohingya crisis at its peak in 2017. Thousands of Muslim civilians had to flee across the border to Bangladesh following the merciless operation of the Myanmar armed forces in response to the ARSA attack on police posts.
At first, I was annoyed by the cold silence of Aung San Suu Kyi, as was everyone who has sympathy for the Rohingya. Even if the armed forces are beyond her control, she did not visit Rakhine State, nor voice her sorrow and sympathy for their suffering as even the slightest moral support – I often said this to friends when we talked about the plight of the Rohingya. But now I think I see Aung San Suu Kyi correctly as a pragmatic political leader who has firmly stuck to her particular goal in this long journey toward the establishment of a truly democratic federal Union.
When even democratic countries with full civilian governments have their issues (the West is full of examples, both now and consistently over recent decades), how can a military-controlled government with an iron-grip on power solve all the issues in a developing country? There must be a clear and specific goal, and Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen amendment of the constitution through national reconciliation and peace as her goal. Aung San Suu Kyi is rightly accused of being obsessed with constitutional amendment (Marie Lall, 2016:85), but arguably this is also the right obsession – to put the army under fully civilian democratic government as soon as possible. Only then will there be a possibility to transform Myanmar into a country where all its nationals (of course, including the Rohingya) can enjoy freedom, equality, and prosperity.
So far, we can only pray and hope against hope that Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence is not just cheap or vain but truly striving for the common good of all people – including the Rohingya who are now in seemingly hopeless despair – regardless of race and religion in the future of Myanmar.
David Steinberg rightly observes that “there is a persistent (however erroneous) belief that Burmese (i.e., Burman) culture is under attack from foreigners, and only the military can save both the state and its (Burman) culture. These beliefs are deeply held and are not propaganda, although they are often portrayed as such by foreign media. Ultimately, Burmese governments have always stressed the need to protect national sovereignty” (David Steinberg, 2010:156). And Aung San Suu Kyi also knows well this nature of Burmese nationalism which is full of fear for foreigners. This issue is a major reason Aung San Suu Kyi keeps silent on the suffering of the Rohingya as a pragmatic politician. She knows all too well the extent of Burmese nationalism, which has forced her to remain restrained and cope with whatever brutal actions the military commits – even public assassinations of her comrades – with the sole aim to build a real democratic government for the sustainable development of Myanmar.
Therefore, her present efforts ‘seemingly to please certain members of the former regime and her refusal to upset the Buddhist Bamar majority, as well as her obsession with changing the constitution’ (Marie Lall, 2016: 85) seem to be painfully accepted as a ‘necessary evil’ which we must learn to cope with in the present political conundrum of Myanmar. It seems that she does not want to lose this opportunity to participate inside the political process, sort of a rarity of rarities, having waited for too long and spent opposing the military externally with so many lives lost. And the Rohingya are sadly paying for it during this in-between state of the democratic federal struggle.
In his open letter, Desmond Tutu chided his fellow Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, saying, ‘If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.’ These words clearly imply that Tutu considers Aung San Suu Kyi as heartless toward the Rohingya people and that she is keeping silent to consolidate her privileged position for her interest.
Professor Marie Lall, South Asia/Myanmar expert, has also accused Aung San Suu Kyi of keeping silent, not wanting to upset the Buddhist majority (likely close to 90 percent of the population) and being obsessed with changing the constitution so that she can develop her political future, desiring to become the future president (2016: 85, 155).
Mark Farmaner, Director at Burma Campaign UK, also accused Aung San Suu Kyi of ‘defending the indefensible’ military against charges of genocide at the ICJ as an opportunity to boost the domestic public support for her political interest (Burma Campaign News, Issue 37, 2020: 9).
For Tutu, Lall, Farmaner, and many other activists and world leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi has changed herself into the Beast from the former Beauty for her own interest. However, it seems they all fail to see ‘a hidden heart in house arrest’ in Naypyidaw, wounded from decades ago and yet trudging on and having to sacrifice her own image for the sake of her long-term plan to build a peaceful and inclusive nation. I still find it hard to accept that a woman who started out with such a strong and beautiful heart can be so easily beguiled within a short time in a position of power to be changed into a woman with a beastly heart. I doubt whether scholars and observers have ever truly looked into her dilemma, considering the path she has been through, in order to understand her. I see a lack of effort to sympathise with her emotional suffering inside.
I think, to understand the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi better, one should also consider hidden forces behind the violent assassination of U Ko Ni, the legal adviser of Aung San Suu Kyi. It was estimated that the military was not directly involved in this assassination. However, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership were brutally reminded that there were hidden forces ready to use violence to stop any action that was against the military and the 2008 constitution that ensures military control. This fact seems to have left Aung San Suu Kyi little choice but to cooperate and cope with the military leadership.
Moreover, I also think that those who are too ready to utter harsh criticism should recall all the trials Aung San Suu Kyi has gone through. These should be taken into consideration: the emotional shock of having spent 15 years under house arrest, losing her husband and becoming distant from her sons, the constant manipulation of the military junta, watching her friends and colleagues die in their struggle, all of these adding up – and the recent harsh criticism of Western media and voices, and finally the institutions which have given her awards but have failed to give her compassion and sympathy.
The world has seen what she has sacrificed for her country, and the world has witnessed that it is not for her luxury. If only for her interest and comfort, why should she allow all her dignity to be stripped off, being treated as a heartless monster by the international community? I simply do not think a woman of her age would willingly take all this blame on herself for just a short time in a position of power. There must be a hidden heart in her innermost being.
This hidden heart, I believe, is weeping and wanting to fix all of Myanmar’s woes but also coming to terms with the slow process of change. I believe this hidden heart is so heavy, weighed down with grief and sadness for all the sufferings of the Rohingya, as with the millions of others for whom the tyranny of the military is still felt every day. Aung San Suu Kyi may have started out her political career as the sort of person the West idolizes– idealist and moralist. But with her younger days past, and with an emptiness that no amount of awards could fill, perhaps we can imagine how she now faces the reality of time and age in accepting that not all she set out to do can be accomplished within her lifetime.
I hope Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence is a price large enough to make the military willing to rebuild its dignity and worth by relinquishing political power to a fully civilian government. And I look forward to the day when this ‘hidden heart in house arrest’ will be seen and appreciated by the whole world when the radical but inevitable change in Myanmar’s constitution happens and the military willingly goes back to their right place to serve the security and prosperity of the people.
Thuama is currently a PhD (Religions and Theology) student at Luther King House (University of Manchester), doing research under the title of ‘A Public and Prophetic Theology in Myanmar’. He is a tutor at Tahan Institute of Theology, Kalaymyo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar.