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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 8th June 2018 > ‘What Does the Lady Want?’

‘What Does the Lady Want?’

Photo illustration by PictureBox Creative


THERE’S A LOW BUZZ AT HOUSE OF Memories, a popular restaurant in Yangon, where two 20-somethings in T-shirts are listening impatiently to a visitor’s questions about Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar. Some 600 miles away from the main city, the military allegedly has been ethnically cleansing Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, and the visitor wants to know if they think Suu Kyi has condoned these actions.

The two munch on seafood salad and batter-fried vegetables, point out the Japanese tourists dining at the next table and murmur asides to each other before one finally declares, “I love her,” his tone at once plaintive and defiant. “And anyway,” he says of the Rohingyas, “those are not Burmese.”

That’s a common refrain among Myanmar’s Buddhist Burmans, the country’s ethnic majority. They see Suu Kyi, 72, as one of their own. She’s the adored youngest daughter of Major General Aung San, who led the fight against the British before rival politicians assassinated him just months before London granted the country independence in 1947. She’s the Oxford-educated patriot who opposed the military regime, which seized power in 1962 and introduced totalitarian rule. She’s the defiant dissident who became the face of nationwide protests against the military in 1988, before the army cracked down on them, killing thousands of citizens. The Lady, as Suu Kyi is known in Myanmar, spent more than a decade under house arrest. Her resistance was so fierce, she even refused to travel to England for the funeral of her British husband, Michael Aris, for fear that the junta would not let her return home. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to nonviolent struggle, democracy and human rights.

That struggle continued for another two decades, and by 2015, then-President Thein Sein decided to hold a free election in a bid to make sure the West didn’t reimpose crippling economic sanctions against the country. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won and formed a civilian government that the former dissident now heads as state counselor.

Today, however, some three years after that contest, critics have condemned her for, among other offenses, sacrificing the stateless Rohingyas, backsliding on press freedom, failing to forge a peace with militant groups and believing she can bring the generals around on all of the above. “The reality is, Suu Kyi was great as a democracy icon working from the outside,” says Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst with Jane’s, a British company that provides military, defense and national security intelligence. “She made the mistake of getting into power. She’s become a fig leaf for and hostage of the military.”

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Once hailed as a heroine of human rights, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is now being condemned for mistreating Muslims.
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