The paradox at the heart of the Rohingya genocide has always been Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Just a few short years ago, the Rohingya regarded the international democracy icon as their champion and defender in an increasingly hostile Myanmar. Last month, she was standing before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, defending the soldiers and politicians who erased the Rohingya from their native lands in Myanmar. Her history is a lesson for the optimists who thought democracy would also bring liberalism—and a disturbing portent of the compatibility of democracy and oppression that's playing out from New Delhi to Budapest.
The Rohingya Muslim minority has been a favourite target for successive Buddhist central governments in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, for almost the entire post-imperial history of the country. But they have been far from the only target. Other, smaller, Muslim groups have always been on the radar of the Theravada nationalist military juntas that ruled the country between 1962 and 2011. Christian groups and a plethora of borderland ethnic groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan, and Karen were also oppressed under the juntas.
Yet so were political dissidents opposed to the military dictatorships, who suffered decades of repression for their pro-democracy politics. Leading the charge was one Aung San Suu Kyi—a feat that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. And over the decades of shared pain and anguish at the hands of the juntas, all oppressed groups in Myanmar came to call her Daw Suu or Mother Suu, as she championed political reform and human rights in Myanmar. Solidarity between the oppressed seemed natural—and potentially hopeful for a post-junta future. In April 2016, it seemed like the resistance had won and a renaissance would come to Myanmar.
In April 2016, it seemed like the resistance had won and a renaissance would come to Myanmar. After a decadelong constitutional process, the country finally assumed the semblance of democracy, and Aung San Suu Kyi took office at the head of civilian government. All looked forward to a brighter future, especially those hit hardest by excesses of the juntas. Especially the Rohingya.
Yet as early as that October, the largely autonomous Burmese military initiated a major crackdown against the Rohingya, in response to a number of insurgent attacks against federal security agencies in the western state of Rakhine. The following year, in August 2017, the military started so-called clearance operations in earnest. By January 2018, some 700,000 Rohingya (out of a total of 1 million), had fled over the border to Bangladesh, in the wake of a sustained campaign of extrajudicial murders, torture, systematic rape, and the burning down of villages, crops, and livestock by the federal security agencies.
The Rohingya had been largely driven from the lands of their birth within the first two years of Aung San Suu Kyi's term in office—a feat that had eluded the military juntas for decades.
For most of this time, international observers who had been familiar with Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy efforts were reluctant to place the responsibility for what was happening in Rakhine state on her.
And there were grounds to give her the benefit of the doubt. For example, Myanmar had not transitioned to a full democracy but rather to a hybrid system where the old military establishment maintained full control over the country's security concerns, foreign policy, and the areas of the country directly ruled by the military, as well as the central pillars of the resource economy. Aung San Suu Kyi could not have ordered the military to stop their operations against the Rohingya, and it was legitimate to fear that the military would reverse the transition toward democracy if the democratically elected government challenged its authority. It was legitimate to fear that the military would reverse the transition toward democracy if the democratically elected government challenged its authority.
But even then, some of us noted at the time that her public defense of the military operations in the international press went beyond meek acquiescence to the power the military establishment still holds in the country. And after some digging, we also found some possible explanations for her behaviour: Her personal views had long had evidence of substantial anti-Muslim bias. Perhaps the reasons she was not mounting a defense of the Rohingya people while the military was waging a genocidal campaign against them was not mere political cowardice. Perhaps she shared at least in part the military establishment's view of the Rohingya as illegitimate foreigners in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi's conduct before the ICJ has resolved this question once and for all. Reports recount how she was sitting "impassively" as the prosecution presented testimony and evidence of egregious violations. As the Times of London described the scene of the testimony:
"… an eight-months-pregnant woman kicked by booted Burmese soldiers, hung by her wrists from a banana tree and raped nine times so she lost the baby; a mother forced to watch her 18-month-old son beaten to death. Throats slit, mass gang rapes in front of family and neighbours, entire villages burnt to the ground … through it all not a flicker of emotion crossed Aung San Suu Kyi's face."
Myanmar is not even disputing that such abuses took place. It is merely disputing that they were systematic and aimed at destroying the Rohingya as an ethnic identity—even as Aung San Suu Kyi refused to utter the word "Rohingya."
That perhaps is the most telling of all: Aung San Suu Kyi maintains before the ICJ, as she has done before, that Rohingya is not an identity that should be recognized. She is reiterating the falsehood, now widely believed in Myanmar, that the Rohingya are immigrants from Bangladesh who entered Myanmar illegally just after independence and created the term "Rohingya" to give themselves a new identity and connect them to Myanmar. That is genocidal intent by legal definition under international law. This should be an open-and-shut case on this basis alone. Aung San Suu Kyi maintains before the ICJ, as she has done before, that Rohingya is not an identity that should be recognized.
It turns out the enemy of your enemy is not automatically your friend. Aung San Suu Kyi stood against the military dictatorship in Myanmar, and she fought against many of the human rights abuses the dictatorship perpetrated against its citizens. But that never made her a liberal or someone who believed in universal human rights.
Her background, and her family's background following her father, Gen. Aung San, is in the anti-British, Burmese independence movement. The strongest current underpinning that independence movement was Burmese ethnic and Theravada Buddhist nationalism. She had views, shared with her father, about how such a state should be governed. They, unlike most of the pro-independence revolutionaries who became the country's military establishment, preferred a democratic socialist system to a socialist dictatorship. But they were never in much doubt about what they saw as the proper nature of the state as culturally Burmese and Theravada Buddhist.
That the military juntas oppressed people was a problem so long as the Burmese, like Aung San Suu Kyi, were among the people being oppressed. But now that the military establishment has moved to accommodate the Burmese pro-democracy movements in the country, oppression of so-called Muslim foreigners like the supposedly Bengali Rohingya is perfectly acceptable along the path toward building an exclusionary Buddhist nation-state.
What Aung San Suu Kyi proves is that truth most offensive to liberal democrats: Democracy and liberalism are completely different things, and democracies, democratic leaders, and, indeed, globally recognizable pro-democracy icons can shed liberal values such as universal respect for human rights and human lives. Indeed, they never needed to have them. The majoritarian rule can be as cruel and oppressive as any dictatorship—as long as it targets the right, or the wrong, people.
At least to that extent, Aung San Suu Kyi's fall from grace captures the zeitgeist of the broader global moment. Those of us who look around the world in dismay at the rise of reactionary populism based on tribal identities and culture wars always believed that more democracy was a reliable path toward greater protection of human dignity and human rights. But that was only ever the case as long as the democrats are also independently committed to liberal values. Aung San Suu Kyi proves that you can have a democratically sanctioned genocide. Indeed, some have speculated that her defense of the genocide before the ICJ is likely to improve her standing in this year's federal elections in Myanmar. And this lesson has not been lost on other world leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi in neighbouring India, who is also now constructing mass internment camps for Muslims. It seems Daw Suu's legacy may extend beyond her own borders after all.
Azeem Ibrahim is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College and a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and a former expert advisor to the UK government's Commission for Countering Extremism.