It's Not Always Easy to Stand Up for What's Right


Clay R. Fuller gives a strategic, though unpopular, explanation to defend someone who historically is one of the most defensible people in modern day - Aung San Suu Kyi - and he will surely catch grief for it. But that doesn't mean he's wrong, and it certainly seems to be the price strategic thinkers are paying these days for seeing nuance in a black and white world.

Long story short: Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's assassinated independence hero, General Aung San, spent most of her adult life under house arrest. She lived in this state of detention because she spoke out in defense of freedom in a country where a military coup in 1962 caused untold anguish and oppression. She didn't arrive on this scene until 1988, after having lived abroad her whole life.

She became the face of resistance, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She's won many other awards since then as well.

In 2015, five years after having been released from house arrest, the National League for Democracy Party which she leads won in a landslide the first openly contested election since 1990 (the last time she was elected to lead the country but denied her seat). She was named state counselor because she is not allowed to be president (because her children are foreign nationals). By most accounts, she is considered the leader of the country, and she is close friends with the president. Yet, the military police

In 2016, at age 71, she won the Humanitarian of the Year Award from Harvard University. Apparently, this, and other recognition of her work, is an affront to several right-minded people. The reason: She hasn't done enough to help the minority Rohingya Muslims in her nation.

The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens in Burma, or anywhere else. They have been marginalized for decades. And they have made the news quite a bit lately, in part because of the conditions in which they find themselves in Burma's border nations where they live as refugees, in part because of a renewed crackdown against them by the military.

Suu Kyi has done little to speak up for this group. Fuller has a theory behind Suu Kyi's inaction, and it's not easy to swallow.

Her reticence likely reflects a political calculus. Aung San Suu Kyi will not stand up for the Rohingya because doing so will likely remove her from the process she has fought for decades to be included in and continues to fight so hard to transform. Politicians, especially democratically elected ones, say (or avoid saying) whatever it takes to win the votes of people, and people very often have profound historical grievances and abysmal cultural prejudices.

For far too long people have mistaken elections for democracy, conflating the two. Elections are merely one of many tools, and tools can be shaped and manipulated to fit the task at hand. The election that brought the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi to power was a tool to legitimize de jure democratic rule in Myanmar to Western audiences (for various reasons) while retaining de facto military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi knows this better than anybody and wants to change it, but change takes time.

If she publicly speaks to the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya, the international community will praise her, activists will cheer, and the media will declare that she has done the right thing. But in her country, her party will most likely lose the next election to military-controlled parties. If that happens, the strongest voice for democracy in Burma will be silenced, the repression of Rohingya and all other minorities will intensify, and cries will ring out for intervention. Myanmar will slide backwards, away from democracy and deeper into dictatorship.

This truth may not sit well with people who want to see justice for an obviously mistreated minority. But it's easy to talk about doing the right thing when it's only a theory. It took one woman 25 years to claim a seat she won by democratic vote. Now that she's taken her leadership position, she must build the economic and political environment that will enable citizens to accept an impoverished and unpopular diaspora.