Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was once lauded internationally for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, made a rare trip to Europe this week.
But the civilian leader’s purpose this time wasn’t to champion human rights and democracy. It was to meet with far-right Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán to lament the “continuously growing Muslim populations” in both of their countries.
“The two leaders highlighted that one of the greatest challenges at present for both countries and their respective regions — South East Asia and Europe — is migration,” read a statement released by the Hungarian government after the summit. “They noted that both regions have seen the emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”
That’s a chilling statement. Over the past two years, Suu Kyi has stood by during the genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya, a long-persecuted Muslim minority group. Hundreds of thousands have been killed or have fled their homes to escape the widespread crackdown.
Orbán, meanwhile, has described migrants from the Middle East and central Asia who are fleeing violence and economic hardship as “Muslim invaders” and has taken dramatic measures to curtail the number of immigrants entering Hungary, including constructing a massive barbed-wire fence along the border with Serbia.
In that context, the statement from the two leaders basically translates as: “We either want to keep Muslims away from us or kill them.”
The statement makes two things depressingly clear. First, followers of Islam are increasingly persecuted all around the globe, not just in Europe, even though much press has been devoted to that trend in recent years. Second, Suu Kyi’s fall from grace isn’t slowing down — it’s accelerating.
“The Lady” with the iron fist
Suu Kyi, known as “The Lady,” spent 15 years under military house arrest in Myanmar for her pro-democracy activism. Largely locked away for chunks of time between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, she earned a global reputation for quiet strength in the face of a brutal military junta. Suu Kyi refused to leave her country, even though it meant forgoing a life with her sons and husband, who lived overseas.
That stoicism won her comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. She became something of a pop culture icon as well. U2’s Bono wrote a song dedicated to her; her cause was championed by film stars like Julia Roberts and Kevin Spacey. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 — but received it in person only in 2012, after her release in 2010. Her party swept elections in a landslide victory in 2015, making her the de facto civilian leader of her country.
But her reputation has darkened because of her refusal to speak out about — or take any meaningful steps to prevent — the military crackdown targeting the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have left their homes — most streaming across the border into neighboring Bangladesh — running from a military that still controls crucial aspects of Myanmar’s government, including the state security apparatus.
Her refusal to do anything to stop the violence led many to push for the removal of her Nobel Peace Prize, but the committee has so far chosen not to revoke it. She has, however, been stripped of less prestigious awards.
In fact, she continues to mostly ignore the plight of the Rohingya, even as international pressure mounts. “I don’t think there is ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening,” she told the BBC in 2017. ”I think there is a lot of hostility there — it is Muslims killing Muslims as well, if they think they are cooperating with the authorities.”
Which means the sentiments she shared with Orbán aren’t new — they’re par for the course for a person who has long wanted Muslims violently removed from her country.