Two years ago, Myanmar celebrated a moment many thought would never come as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi took her seat at the head of the country’s new government.
Suu Kyi and outgoing President Thein Sein were feted around the world for helping transition the country from military junta to semi-democracy, and the reputation of “The Lady” was higher than ever.
Today, her image around the world is in tatters, marred by her perceived mishandling of the Rohingya crisis, which has seen hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim ethnic minority people flee a brutal crackdown by the military in northwestern Rakhine state.
Suu Kyi’s transformation from democracy icon to figure of disdain reached a new stage this week, when one of Suu Kyi’s strongest backers in the West publicly broke with her, denouncing her as out of touch, fearful of the military and reluctant to confront the human rights crisis unfolding in her own country.
Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has known Suu Kyi for over 30 years and visited her during her lengthy period of house arrest, told CNN this week “she’s changed, she’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.”
“(She doesn’t) want to hear bad news, and I think that’s what’s happened to her, to my friend,” he said. “Well, maybe former friend because I’m sure she doesn’t consider me a friend.”
In a statement Friday, Suu Kyi’s office said she sacked Richardson, accusing him of attempting to “pursue his own agenda.”
“In view of the difference of opinion that developed, the government decided that his continued participation on the (advisory) board would not be the best interest of all concerned,” the statement said.
Prior to that statement, a spokesman for Suu Kyi told CNN “we are very sorry about Mr Richardson’s resignation.”
‘Circus of commissions’
Until this week, Richardson was on a board tasked with implementing the recommendations of a commission helmed by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Annan’s commission highlighted a number of major issues in Rakhine State which led to the current crisis, though Suu Kyi appeared to rebut several of them in a public speech on the Rohingya issue.
“There’s a long history of the establishment of commissions that essentially serve to whitewash human rights violations in Rakhine state,” said Matthew Smith, co-founder of the Thailand-based Fortify Rights.
“Among the circus of commissions over many years, the Annan commission was a rare exception” in that it produced actionable suggestions and criticism of government policies, he said.
Richardson however has accused the board he was on of dragging its feet, of becoming a “cheerleading squad for government policy as opposed to proposing genuine policy changes that are desperately needed.”
The Rohingya issue is one of the most controversial in Myanmar and has plagued the country, also known as Burma, for decades.
While many of the mostly Muslim ethnic group can trace their lineage in Myanmar back centuries, the majority Bamar population regards them as “Bengali” interlopers, and they have been consistently denied citizenship or legal status.
Prejudice against the Rohingya – a word many Burmese won’t even use – is widespread across all levels of society, including within the country’s elite and pro-democracy parties.
“Much of the hatred and discrimination against the Rohingya population has been cultivated over many years,” said Smith.
“Suu Kyi and her moral leadership could have gone a long way to unpack and unravel that … instead (she’s) actually perpetrated many of the stereotypes and anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya discrimination.”
As Francis Wade writes in “Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim Other,” even before the latest crisis “Suu Kyi was often accused of harboring a possible (anti-Muslim) bias of her own, for she was an elite Bamar and thus a beneficiary of the ethnic hierarchy that had formed in Myanmar.”
She notoriously dismissed concerns about rising violence against Rohingya in a 2013 interview, saying Buddhists in Rakhine live in fear of “global Muslim power.”
According to Matthew Mullen, an expert in Myanmar politics at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Thailand’s Mahidol University, the transition from military rule gave an opening for “xenophobic forces … to target, attack and exclude, turning the transition into a cleansing project” aimed at hated ethnic minorities.
Smith said the risk is “very high that violence could spread to other areas,” with more than 130 ethnic groups in Myanmar, including major non-Buddhist communities who have historically been oppressed.
The intense international criticism of the government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis has in turn created something of a siege mentality in Myanmar.
According to Richardson, Suu Kyi has reacted to the ongoing criticism by surrounding herself with “sycophants” and refusing to listen to bad news.
There is a “power bubble that has been created around her,” filled with people who “tell her how great things are,” he said. “She needs to start listening to her friends, people like me that are giving her frank advice that things are not going well, but she doesn’t seem to want to hear this.”
The majority of Burmese are still fans of Suu Kyi, with some telling CNN after a speech late last year the international criticism had only increased their support for her.
“Suu Kyi has got many supporters who are so thoroughly biased in favor of (her) that when she is criticized it does make them recoil and have firmer stances,” Smith said.
Suu Kyi and her supporters meanwhile have accused the international press of exaggerating the crisis and constructing a “huge iceberg of misinformation” which is negatively affecting her ability to run the country.
A breaking point for Richardson was Suu Kyi’s handling of the detention of two Reuters journalists who are being charged under colonial-era secrecy laws.
As a former political prisoner herself, Richardson felt Suu Kyi should have a greater understanding for the men’s plight and that of their families.
“I reminded her that years ago I helped release a lot of polifical prisoners in Myanmar, including herself from house arrest and some of her allies, and here’s a case where she’s objecting and lashing out at me for trying to get the two journalists out,” he said.
Richardson said he wouldn’t go as far to back calls for Suu Kyi to be stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize, but he said he hoped his resignation would be a “wake-up call to her that she’s got to change.”
“This is not the Aung San Suu Kyi that I’ve known was a beacon of democracy and Nobel Prize Winner. She’s changed and she needs to change back.”