Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s de facto head of state whose nonviolent struggles for democracy and human rights in Burma won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, continues to be complicit in these mass atrocities. After remaining silent for weeks, she delivered a speech yesterday refusing to criticize the gross human rights abuses being committed by the military. She even questioned why the Rohingya were fleeing to Bangladesh. According to Azeem Ibrahim, author of The Rohingya: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, “she either does not know or is simply trying to deceive.” The former human rights hero has sacrificed human rights principles for politics.
Aung San Suu Kyi is not the first to inspire hope only to later become a perpetrator of atrocities. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, long championed for its role in achieving independence for South Sudan, has committed mass killings during the current conflict. Syrian rebels who still receive foreign assistance from the United States in their struggle for freedom against the regime of Bashar al-Assad have tortured and executed civilians while maintaining close ties with terrorists. Human rights advocates have consistently overlooked the warning signs associated with these individuals. Burma is a prime example of this phenomenon; for years, Aung San Suu Kyi has consistently ignored the “slow genocide” being committed against the Rohingya.
It is easy to rally behind an individual, particularly when he or she represents such a drastic improvement relative to the status quo. Indeed, human rights advocates, who work tirelessly for each small gain, may be even more willing to highlight the courage and ideals of people like Aung San Suu Kyi, depicting them as heroes with the conviction necessary to singlehandedly overcome the flaws of political and cultural structures.
Yet what these examples demonstrate is the error in doing so. If there is any lesson to be learned from Aung San Suu Kyi and her unwillingness to speak out on behalf of the Rohingya, it is that even a Nobel Peace Prize winner is deeply imperfect. Indeed, the root of the problem in Burma does not lie with its de facto leader, but with its exclusionary, authoritarian political system, forged by decades of military rule and Buddhist extremism. While it can be tempting to gravitate towards individual leaders, we must acknowledge that all individuals are products of their environments.
While Aung San Suu Kyi could and should be a vocal ally for the Rohingya, she may not be the most fruitful or effective target. For this reason, it is necessary for us to reach for solutions beyond individuals – to push for international aid, donate directly to relief efforts, campaign for citizenship and full rights for the Rohingya, and pressure our governments to take both national and UN-level action for the protection of persecuted individuals.
I do not intend to be disheartening on this International Day of Peace. Indeed, I fervently believe that peace can be achieved, but by slowly progressing towards a better society rather than placing our faith in heroes. This is no easy task. It requires us to follow the news and understand the complex factors fueling violence around the world. It requires us to call our elected officials and implore them to formulate policies intended to end mass atrocities. It requires us to make financial sacrifices to humanitarian and peacebuilding organizations. Perhaps most importantly, it requires us to respect our fellow human beings. In the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, it requires us to “resist cynical efforts to divide communities,” but instead to “stand up against bigotry and for human rights.”
Justin Cole is the Policy Coordinator for STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities, and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he is currently earning his degree in economics and peace, war, and defense.