It is almost three years since the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a crushing victory in Myanmar’s first proper election in half a century.
The public displays of joy and international praise that greeted the results now mock the hideous developments on the ground.
And while the victorious State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed as a democratic saviour, finally vanquishing her adversaries in the military, her name is now more closely associated with genocide.
But all the signs that she would become a feeble apologist for the generals were there in 2015 for anyone who cared to look.
In March 2015, while Suu Kyi was still an opposition parliamentarian, protesting students were savagely beaten in Letpadan and jailed by the military-controlled authorities.
Suu Kyi continued on the campaign trail throughout the students’ show trials and torture in jail. She made bland speeches full of trite remarks calling for the nation to change its mindset and embrace peace while failing to acknowledge the suffering of the students.
A proper defender of democracy would have abandoned her engagements and gone to the prison gates and demanded the students’ freedom. But her silence on the issue was shameful.
This gutless inability to stand up to those in power has been repeated under increasing international scrutiny as she attained office and then appeared to go to any lengths to keep it and her hastily invented job title of state counsellor.
And a new wave of condemnation is coming this week.
A United Nations human rights investigator says Suu Kyi is acting as a “fig leaf for military atrocities” against the Rohingya community.
Ahead of today’s (Tuesday) release of a report on “genocidal” crimes against the Muslim population of Rakhine State, Australian lawyer Chris Sidoti said Suu Kyi could not escape responsibility for failing to speak out during the crisis.
Three independent observers – Sidoti, Marzuki Darusman, Indonesia’s former attorney-general, and Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer and women’s rights campaigner – will provide the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with details of killing and rape as more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh after the August 2017 crackdown.
In Geneva, they will present the results of a yearlong UN-mandated study into war crimes against the Rohingya, Shan and Kachin communities.
“The very first thing she could have done was not provide cover for the military by dismissing the overwhelming number of reports of mass rape as fake,” Sidoti said of Suu Kyi, who remains widely popular among Myanmar’s Buddhist voters.
As we have seen since 2016 from Donald Trump’s outbursts about Mexicans and Muslims, the Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s stance on drug users and numerous other populists through the ages, it is often a vote winner to single out a vulnerable minority and blame them for a nation’s ills.
One would have thought that the Oxford-educated Suu Kyi could have avoided falling into the same trap but she appears content to have joined the dictator’s club.
“She could have refused to provide a fig leaf for military atrocities of the most serious kind,” Sidoti said. “She has enormous moral authority, she won 80 per cent of the popular vote in the 2015 election.”
Under the military-drafted 2008 constitution, the generals control three of the most important ministries – home affairs, defence and border security – meaning Suu Kyi’s NLD has little control over Rakhine operations. The Nobel peace laureate could, however, have resigned or been less enthusiastic in jumping to the generals’ defence.
At the World Economic Forum in Hanoi this month, Suu Kyi claimed her civilian government wielded “only 75 per cent of the power” in its arrangement in Nay Pyi Taw with the military.
Most observers would say the figure should be far lower, with the NLD relatively powerless.
When a preliminary report last month called for Myanmar’s military commanders to be investigated and prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity, Nay Pyi Taw claimed the calls were based on “false allegations”.
But Sidoti said he was confident that justice would prevail. “I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow but justice has a way of catching up with people,” he told the media.
In a sign of the military’s pariah status, Russian social media site VKontakte (VK) has followed Facebook by banning Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and nationalist monk Wirathu, known for inciting anti-Muslim hatred.
Facebook, the dominant social-media site in Myanmar, recently blacklisted the military leadership after a UN report on the Rohingya. Min Aung Hlaing then opened an account on VK, which has a similar blue and white interface but is based in Russia, an ally of Nay Pyi Taw.
He reportedly acquired 37,000 followers but yesterday they were greeted with a message that the account had been suspended “due to a violation of the VK terms of service”.
When Russia – which regularly invades its neighbours and poisons exiles – decides it does not want to be associated with you, it suggests you might have overstepped a moral boundary.
Min Aung Hlaing had two Facebook accounts with 1.3 and 2.8 million followers, which were often used to whip up nationalist support for the Rakhine crackdown.
Posts often referred to the Rohingya as “Bengalis” to imply they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
It looks like he will have to find a new forum to spread his racist bile.
As for Suu Kyi, she has gone from the international symbol of peace and democracy to a defender of genocide in three years. It is hard to think of a more dramatic fall from grace.
The National League for Democracy’s headquarters in Yangon. Picture credit: Asean Economist