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"No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim": Aung San Suu Kyi's Rohingya problem

Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar during elections.
Lam Yik Fei/Getty

In October 2013, one of the most celebrated political dissidents in the world sat down for an interview with BBC presenter Mishal Husain, and it didn't go great.

Aung San Suu Kyi was, at that point, still in the process of transitioning from a Nobel Peace Prize–winning political prisoner of Myanmar's military government — she was kept under house arrest until 2010 — to the country's de facto leader. After being freed as part of her country's opening, her political party won a number of seats in limited 2012 parliamentary elections.

Later, in November 2015, her political party would win a landslide in the country's first real elections in decades. While she herself is barred from becoming president, she picked a close ally and is widely considered the real power behind the newly democratic government.

As of October 2013, that was still two years off, but it seemed clear that Aung San Suu Kyi was becoming rapidly more important in her country's politics. So Husain, rightly, pressed Aung San Suu Kyi on a political challenge she was not handling well: acts of large-scale ethnic cleansing, often abetted or encouraged by government forces, against an ethnic minority known as the Rohingya, who are also Muslim.

For all her heroism in fighting for democracy in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has always been bad on this issue, decrying the violence but also refusing to acknowledge its scale or the government's role, often taking a baffling "both sides" stance. And she was rarely worse than in her interview with Husain, where she became defensive, downplayed the crisis, and appeared to put some blame on the victims:

That interview again made news on Friday, when British media reported that, according to a new book on Aung San Suu Kyi, she was so angered by the interview's focus on Rohingya that afterward she was heard muttering, presumably to an aide, "No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim."

The comment is being treated as further proof that Aung San Suu Kyi may not be the beacon of hope the world had thought her to be; that her weakness on the Rohingya crisis, in addition to being terrible in its own right, is symptomatic of larger problems with how she thinks about important issues of diversity and tolerance.

At the risk of sounding like I am defending her (I am not), it's worth putting her comment in the context of how identity is discussed in her country versus in ours.

In British or American society, such a comment is considered unacceptable, both for reducing the BBC's Mishal Husain to her religion and for implying that being "interviewed by a Muslim" is different from being interviewed by any other kind of journalist.

In Myanmar, and in many countries where sectarian politics are more pronounced and discussed more openly, it is common to assume that people will act primarily as members of their ethnoreligious group.

Indeed, a journalist friend from Myanmar will often identify himself, in questions, as a member of the Karen ethnic minority, signaling that he is writing on behalf of Karen interests. I have seen, in Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi questioned by a journalist who identified himself as Muslim and clearly considered that salient to his coverage and question.

That's not to condone this system, but rather to note that, within this context, Aung Sang Suu Kyi's comment becomes, while not more defensible, more comprehensible. She is accustomed to seeing journalists as representatives of their ethnoreligious communities, (wrongly) concluded that this explained Husain's questions on Rohingya, and chastised her staff for not preparing her.

But the point is that her comment feeds into an entirely correct impression that Aung San Suu Kyi wants to lead Myanmar but is unwilling to stand up for the Rohingya who are its most vulnerable citizens.

Rohingya, of whom there are about a million in the country, are typically not even considered to be legal citizens of Myanmar. (The question I saw a Muslim reporter ask her in Yangon was over whether she would change this; her reply was vague but implied that she would not.) They are thus denied social services and legal recourse.

And throughout much of 2013, they were victims of mass killings and forced relocations, often abetted by local government and military officials that encourage the violence or decline to stop it. Many now live in camps or have attempted to flee the country as refugees, though the journey is dangerous and often deadly.

Anti-Rohingya violence and discrimination goes back decades in Myanmar; hostility toward Rohingya is pervasive. (While Western coverage often characterizes this as purely about religion, there are many non-Rohingya Muslims in the country, and they tend to be treated much better.)

In my trip to Myanmar, even in meetings with high-minded, Western-educated democracy activists — people who had sacrificed years of their lives fighting the military regime for civil rights — I heard, with disturbing frequency, people describe the Rohingya as untrustworthy foreigners who had to be controlled or expelled for the good of the nation.

This problem, in other words, is deeply rooted in Myanmar society, which is only just beginning to emerge from decades of military dictatorship, with all the paranoia and hard-line nationalism that brings.

And that naturally leads some observers to wonder whether Aung San Suu Kyi believes that she needs to take a please-nobody middle-ground position on the Rohingya issue; that it's only by indulging anti-Rohingya fears that Myanmar's Buddhists will consider her credible on the issue and thus heed her calls for calm.

Another common interpretation is that Aung San Suu Kyi has simply made a cold political calculation to avoid the Rohingya issue, which would be politically costly and distract from other issues such as reforming the country's economy and eroding the military's still-significant hold on power.

As a third possibility, many observers, with reason, suspect that she is simply personally unsympathetic or even hostile toward the Rohingya and their plight.

"I thought it was worth including in the book because it just feeds into the ambiguity of her position regarding this issue," Peter Popham, the journalist whose book reports this new quote, told the Telegraph.

"One has great admiration for her and her life story and courage, but nobody believes anymore that she is a person without any faults and without her own prejudices and limitations."

There is probably some degree of truth to all three of these possible interpretations. And it is worthwhile debating what explains Aung San Suu Kyi's continued failure to stand up for the Rohingya, and what this tells us about her.

But in any interpretation, her failure is symptomatic of something much larger than herself: a social and political climate in Myanmar, riven for decades by armed conflict between ethnic groups, in which the nation's least powerful minority is vulnerable to not just hateful rhetoric but active ethnic cleansing.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whether she is a calculating politician or a canny mediator or personally hateful toward Rohingya, is a product of this climate.

It's easy to personalize entire countries, especially countries that don't get much coverage in the West, down to their most famous political figure. But even paramount leaders are products of their societies, not the other way around.

That's not an argument for absolving her of responsibility — quite the opposite; it goes to show how important it is that she try to change this climate — but rather a reminder that problems such as ethnic cleansing tend to go much deeper than the sorts of language a political leader uses in her interviews with the BBC.

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