After becoming an international human rights hero and assuming the new government role as State Counselor, Myanmar’s equivalent to Prime Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi was supposed to be the country’s savior. Recently, however, her name and legacy have instead been in the news because of mass human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the country’s Royhinga population. Suu Kyi is the latest in a line of individuals whom the world has admired for their bravery in the face of brutality but, after rising to power and acclaim, have been expected to quickly solve social challenges. The world’s unrealistic expectation of them to bring peace and stability to a region, armed only with their words and awards, may bring attention to the violence and instability in a region, but does little to support effective change.
Suu Kyi is one of the most celebrated human rights icons of our age: Nobel Peace Prize laureate, winner of the Sakharov Prize, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and an Amnesty International-recognized prisoner of conscience for more than a decade. Many know her as the resilient woman who spent 15 years under house arrest for organizing rallies and calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections against the Myanmar dictator in 1988. After decades of international recognition for her humanitarian work, all hopes of her reforming the Myanmar government to prioritize universal human rights have come crashing down.
Since November 2016 organizations including Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have documented and reported devastatingly cruel human rights violations against the Rohingya population in Myanmar. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State; despite being there since the 8th century, they are not recognized by the Myanmar government as an official ethnic group and are denied citizenship. Reporters who have visited the Rakhine state in search of evidence proving systematic violence by the Myanmar military have likened what they have uncovered to the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and atrocities in the Balkans. Outlined in a new report by the United Nations High Commission, the Myanmar army has carried out a brutal crackdown on ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and widespread arson.
From Pope Francis to the New York Times, many prominent people, outlets, and organizations are speaking out against the horrific violence happening in Myanmar and its leaders’ defiant denial of human rights abuses. Suu Kyi’s own office has accused Rohingya women of fabricating “fake rape” stories on the government’s official website, and a representative of the Myanmar Foreign Ministry dismissed the mounting evidence of violence as “made up stories, blown out of proportion.” Although it has become increasingly evident that Suu Kyi will not speak out against the military generals, the international community still holds its breath for the human rights hero to stand against these atrocities. Disastrously, while the world waits for Suu Kyi to condemn what the military has done and to take action to stop the violence immediately, a reported 1,000 Rohingya have been killed and 70,000 forced to flee.
Suu Kyi is not the first, and will not be the last, human rights hero to fall from international good graces after gaining political power. When Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, many compared her situation to Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African prison in 1980. A fellow Nobel-Prize winner, Nelson Mandela was a hero to countless people around the world as an anti-apartheid revolutionary who became the President of South Africa from 1994-1999. Many believed he would lead a country torn apart for centuries by systematic racial discrimination easily into a post-apartheid period solving racism, health epidemics, and poverty all within one presidential term. However, along with his social and economic shortcomings in South Africa, his close friendships with dictators such as Fidel Castro and Muammer Gaddafi, and his refusal to condemn their human rights abuses, his legacy is complicated. He is a hero to many around the world, known for fighting for freedom of all South Africans, but history will also remember him a terrorist for his use of violence in that same struggle.
The world cannot expect the inconceivable from individuals, no matter how many awards or recognitions they receive. This should not in any way diminish what human rights heroes have done. Nelson Mandela will always be the man who embodied the struggle of an entire population for liberation and equality. Suu Kyi will remain the woman who defied a dictator and became the first woman to lead Myanmar. They had to fight for their basic rights and struggle to change what they could in their environment. But their heroism doesn’t make them infallible and the world must stop putting all their hopes and dreams on the shoulders of one person, only to then blame them fully when they are not able to quickly bring peace and democracy to an area filled with violence.
History is full of individuals doing incredible things in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, the world hasn’t learned that individual influence has its limits, and the cultures which society intends to change could outlast and survive the words of reason and pleas for humanity from one person. The Rohingya in Myanmar would have more international support if the increased criticism and focus directed at Suu Kyi would instead be fixated on the systematic political and cultural challenges that have allowed the Rohyinga to be persecuted for decades. While it would be ideal for Suu Kyi to act in her role as counselor to stop the violence and bring security to persecuted communities, it may be unlikely. Suu Kyi is no longer a hero with nothing to lose, but a politician playing with the balance of power in her country.
It is a disservice to human rights defenders and their legacies to place such a grand responsibility of solving systematic human rights violations in the same environment they themselves were oppressed. It is also disingenuous to believe that these individuals ever actually wield the true power to institutionalize the change that is needed. Obtaining universal human rights does not come easily or quickly. To rely on a single hero to shatter centuries of discrimination and violence gives false hope and prolongs the suffering of those in need.
About the author: Savannah Fox is the Human Rights Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Regional Advocacy Coordinator at CARE International in the Advocacy and Policy Unit in Washington DC. Savannah earned her BA in International Relations and German from the University of South Carolina.