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Aung San Suu Kyi Faces Mounting Criticism Abroad Over Rohingya Crisis


All right. So how could a Nobel Peace laureate be a leader in a country that the United Nations says may have committed acts of genocide? That is the question raised by the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, one of the worst humanitarian disasters today. The U.N. says that Myanmar's military may have committed ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims, driving nearly a million of them into Bangladesh. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Yangon, Myanmar's de facto leader, a former political prisoner and pro-democracy icon, has taken much of the blame.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Aung San Suu Kyi has insisted to the outside world that her government is on the same page as the international community, they're sympathetic to human suffering, and they're determined to find a solution to the Rohingya crisis in western Myanmar's Rakhine state. She outlined this in a speech to foreign diplomats last September.


STATE COUNSELLOR AUNG SAN SUU KYI: It is not the intention of the Myanmar government to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility. We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence.

KUHN: An international commission headed by Kofi Annan, the ex-U.N. chief, says the way to resolve the root of the problem is to give the stateless Rohingya citizenship. Suu Kyi has pledged to implement the commission's recommendations. But Dr. Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, says that if the NLD acts boldly on the Rohingya crisis, it could trigger a massive backlash from conservatives who hold the upper hand in Myanmar.

MYO NYUNT: If we take the proper action in accordance with the Western community, there will be nationwide demonstrations.

KUHN: The NLD took power in 2016 following the freest elections in decades of military rule. But in many ways, the military is still in the driver's seat. Myo Nyunt alleges that conservative forces loyal to the old junta organize and pay mobs of provocateurs to stage protests and riots. He says this happened in 2013.

MYO NYUNT: The police was informed, but no action taken. We have photos of those gangs or mobs.

KUHN: Myo Nyunt admits that the NLD lacks the political muscle to effectively implement its own policies. For now, he says, Suu Kyi is focusing on getting the military to cooperate with her, and he says she's worked to prevent it from committing human rights abuses. Here's how Suu Kyi put it herself last September.


SUU KYI: The security forces have been instructed to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians.

KUHN: But critics say they don't see much difference between her attitude towards the Rohingya and the military's. Kyaw Min is an ethnic Rohingya and president of the Democracy and Human Rights Party. He says he supported her for years.

KYAW MIN: Our hope was that she can make the country a peaceful country, a democratic country, which is good for all people. But in practice, when she came in power, we found a different Aung San Suu Kyi.

KUHN: Kyaw Min says that he's not moved by the argument that Suu Kyi is powerless to control the military.

KYAW MIN: If she cannot introduce a strategy that will bring full power to civilian government or to her, it is her failure. It is not the failure of the public.

KUHN: Some of Suu Kyi's critics say that power changed her, but many more seem to think that she was never what people believed her to be.

KHIN ZAW WIN: We can't rely on her. She is not a democrat, you know? She has no regard for human rights.

KUHN: Khin Zaw Win is director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute, and like Aung San Suu Kyi, he's a former political prisoner. He says it's jarring to compare her talk about human rights when she was a prisoner to her handling of the Rohingya crisis now.

KHIN ZAW WIN: All this likenesses of Martin Luther King - you know? - and Mahatma Gandhi - it's all make-believe. And now we know the real Aung San Suu Kyi.

KUHN: Some of her critics have called for Suu Kyi to be brought before the International Criminal Court. She just turned 73 years old. She has two years left in office, and her party has begun to groom new leaders to succeed her. Khin Zaw Win doubts that Aung San Suu Kyi can recover politically from the Rohingya crisis, so this is his advice.

KHIN ZAW WIN: Don't be disappointed, but just treat her as she really is.

KUHN: In other words, just as people shouldn't have sanctified her before, there's no point in demonizing her now. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.