Aung San Suu Kyi: the fallen angel mired in ethnic cleansing claims

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi denies ethnic cleansing, but who is she?

Aung San Suu Kyi is the state counsellor of Myanmar

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Once Aung San Suu Kyi was a beacon of hope for millions of people, a voice of the oppressed and a crusader for a better world.

Yet now the Nobel Prize winner is fighting ethnic cleansing claims, her once-golden image tarnished by the tensions which continue to engulf her country.

For years she was oppressed in Myanmar (also known as Burma) for her fearless human rights campaigning, subjected to 15 years of house arrest for daring to speak about the injustices facing her people.

So when she won Myanmar's first democratically contested election in 25 years in 2015, it was supposed to herald the start of something better. Although she was not eligible to be president of the country, as her children are not Myanmese nationals, she would be the de facto president, the driving force behind the throne.

People talked of a new dawn for Myanmar, led by its most famous figure. But so far those hopes have been disappointed.

For Suu Kyi has been unable to rid Myanmar of a problem which has blighted the country for years: the conflict between the majority Buddhist population and the minority Muslim Rohingya.

She now faces fierce criticism for the crisis in Myanmar, where soldiers have been stopping aid workers from helping those affected by the conflict, and have been accused of raping and killing members of the public. 

Myanmar's ethnic strife has been a major problem for years, and it seems to have been exacerbated, rather than alleviated, since Suu Kyi's party won power. Around 75,000 members of the Rohingya, sometimes described as the most persecuted people on earth, have fled to Bangladesh since October alone. 

Tun Khin, from the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, told the BBC that his people are suffering "mass atrocities", and now the UN is investigating, with experts suggesting a systematic programme of ethnic cleansing punctuated by rape and house burnings.

Suu Kyi - whose official title is 'state counsellor' - denies the ethnic cleansing allegations, telling the BBC such a description is "too strong." As a denial, it isn't exactly emphatic. 

She has said that she is working towards reconciliation, adding that soldiers are “not free to rape, pillage and torture," The Guardian reported. However critics suggest she is complicit in the violence, turning a blind eye to the atrocities; this claim was burnished by her assertion that a group of Rohingya rebels were bent on waging jihad last October, and her suggestion this week that the carnage can partly be attributed to "Muslims killing Muslims".

Yet, if anyone can sort out Myanmar's internecine turmoil, Suu Kyi can. Or at least one would have thought so.

A former student at Oxford University, she spent more than 20 years campaigning for democracy after returning to Myanmar to care for her mother in 1988. This made her a target for the country's military regime, who placed her under house arrest a year after she returned.

She then won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the committee chairman called her "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless," but was not freed from house arrest until 1995. In 2000 she was again imprisoned in her own home for breaching a travel ban, and in 2003, a year after being freed, she was thrown in jail for leading democracy campaigners in a clash with a government-backed mob.

The game of cat-and-mouse continued until 2010, when Suu Kyi was finally released, and after becoming leader of Myanmar's opposition in 2012, her election victory two years ago was meant to complete her phoenix-like rise from oppression and provide Myanmar, one of the world's most troubled countries, with a charismatic totem who could unit its people.

Yet so far Suu Kyi's glorious revolution has fallen flat. Unable - or, in the eyes of her critics, unwilling - to douse Myanmar's ethnic powderkeg, the woman who was once the world's most revered political prisoner may again feel trapped and powerless.