Suu Kyi: The laureate vs the politician

She has mastered the art of speaking in multiple voices. For a laureate it’s embarrassing

By Karan Thapar

Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic peace laureate, has transformed into a clever, possibly crafty, politician. I mourn the loss of her old persona although I’m not yet sure what to make of her new avatar. Politicians are not moral actors. They’re pragmatic practitioners of realpolitik. So there’s no point viewing Suu Kyi in terms of what she was; we need to judge her in the light of what she has become.


Seen this way, her speech last tuesday was revealing. On broad general issues it was reassuring but on the specific question of the Rohingyas it had little to offer. At times, it was even disconcerting. Clearly Suu Kyi has mastered the art of speaking in multiple voices, saying one thing whilst meaning another or hiding behind words. These are the skills of a consummate politician. For a laureate they’re embarrassing.


Whilst painting the big picture, Suu Kyi made grand pronouncements. “We condemn all human rights violations and unlawful violence. We are committed to the restoration of peace, stability and rule of law, throughout the State.” She also affirmed her government would treat everyone equally. “Action will be taken against all peoples, regardless of their religion, race, or political position who go against the laws of the land and who violate human rights as accepted by our international community.”


Although she never called them Rohingya and only referred to them as muslims, she did offer some comfort. “We are determined to implement the recommendations of the (Kofi Annan) Commission.” The details she mentioned corroborate this reassurance. “Those recommendations that will bring speedy improvement to the situation within a short timeframe will be given priority. Other recommendations we will have to take time over, but every single recommendation that will benefit peace, harmony and development in the Rakhine State will be implemented within the shortest time possible.”


All of this would be commendable except for the fact when she spoke more specifically it was clear she refuses to recognize the scale of the problem.


First came the suggestion she doesn’t know what’s actually happening. “We are concerned to hear that numbers of muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to find out why this exodus is happening.” Is she hinting the army has kept her in the dark? Or is she unwilling to accept what she must know? Either way, none are so blind as those who refuse to see.


Then, Suu Kyi claimed that since 5th September there have been no armed clashes or clearance operations. She said “more than 50 per cent of the villages of muslims are intact.” The first is belied by satellite images of burning villages in northern Rakhine on the 8th and 9th. The second is crudely dismissive of the less than 50 per cent villages not intact.


At other times what she said was deceptive. Claiming Burma was prepared to take back people after verification, she added “we are prepared to start the verification process at any time”. But how are people who have lost everything to prove their citizenship? The process she has in mind was set up in 1993. If for 25 years it’s yielded no results, can it do so now?


Worst of all, on one occasion what she said was simply untrue. It just isn’t the case that “all people living in the Rakhine state have access to education and health care services without discrimination”.


Yet Suu Kyi was crafty enough to hide all this behind an impressive invitation to the diplomatic community to visit and judge for themselves. “We invite you to join us, to talk to us, to discuss with us, to go with us to the troubled areas … to see for yourself what is happening and think for yourself.” This was the voice of a politician daring her critics to disbelieve her. If I’m so transparent, she seemed to say, what have I to hide and why are you distrusting me?


This bravura performance would have made Suu Kyi the laureate squirm. The moral equivocation, verbal quibbling and glib language would have angered her. Suu Kyi the politician, on the other hand, has performed in a way Machiavelli might admire.

A piece Karan Thapar wrote for today’s Business Standard (25/9) on how Aung San Suu Kyi has metamorphosed from an iconic peace laureate into a clever and even crafty politician.



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