Politicians turn critical toward Nobel recipient Suu Kyi

People in Peshawar, Pakistan, held up a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi while protesting violence in Myanmar.
BILAWAL ARBAB/European Pressphoto agency
People in Peshawar, Pakistan, held up a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi while protesting violence in Myanmar.

Washington lawmakers who once enthusiastically supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power in Myanmar have shifted this week to criticism over her silence in the face of a bloody military crackdown on ethnic minorities, the latest sign that the nation’s fragile democratic project is on tenuous footing.

Congressional leaders from both parties are adding their voices to the international condemnation of the violence in western Myanmar that has sent an estimated 164,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh and led to growing doubts about Suu Kyi’s leadership.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators — Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Republican John McCain of Arizona — issued a joint resolution condemning the ‘‘horrific acts of violence’’ against the Rohingya and imploring Suu Kyi ‘‘to play an active role in ending this humanitarian tragedy.’’


Suu Kyi, a longtime democratic icon who plays the role of state counselor to the ruling National League for Democracy, has remained largely silent over the mounting humanitarian crisis. The outcry in Congress reflects the dismay and confusion of the stoic group of Suu Kyi’s supporters in Washington that nurtured her throughout her more than 15 years under house arrest and protected her interests as her country emerged from military dictatorship to hold largely democratic elections in November 2015.

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Her unwillingness to speak out against the military crackdown, which came in response to insurgent attacks in western Rakhine State, has prompted some former admirers to suggest that Suu Kyi be stripped of the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991.

‘‘Part of this is the fault of the international community,’’ said Erin Murphy, a former State Department adviser who accompanied then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the country in 2011. ‘‘We told her story for 25 years and we don’t like who she actually is. She does not have any idea how to handle this.’’

The Senate resolution calls on the Burmese government to allow the United Nations ‘‘unrestricted access’’ to assess the situation and provide aid and to end legal restrictions on citizenship and freedom of movement for the Rohingya. It also calls on Suu Kyi to ‘‘live up to her inspiring words’’ and to ‘‘address the historic and brutal repression of the Rohingya.’’

Other senators, including Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, have expressed similar concerns this week.


Yet even as US lawmakers sought to exert their influence, one other notable voice has been missing: President Trump. Neither the White House nor the State Department have spoken out in recent days, sparking concern among Myanmar supporters that the Trump administration has abdicated the direct intervention that marked the tenure of former president Barack Obama.

Obama made Myanmar a centerpiece of his administration’s foreign policy in Asia, viewing the nation of 53 million as a bulwark against neighboring China’s rising influence. Obama made two trips to the country, and last year his administration lifted the remaining economic sanctions, including import of jade and rubies.

Trump, by contrast, does not appear to have spoken with Suu Kyi, who skipped a roundtable meeting of Southeast Asian leaders with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in May over scheduling conflicts.

‘‘Part of the problem is that there is not the kind of strong interest in the White House as there used to be,’’ said Derek Mitchell, who served as US ambassador to Myanmar from 2012-2016.

Trump administration officials did not respond to requests for comment.


Myanmar ‘s more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims are essentially stateless and have endured decades of discrimination and neglect from the Buddhist majority. The situation worsened in 2012 when more than 100,000 Rohingya were confined to dingy camps, where their movement, access to jobs, and education were severely restricted.

The latest exodus of refugees began on Aug. 25 after members of a new insurgent group of Rohingya militants called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked dozens of police outposts as well as an military camp, leading to the government crackdown that has left more than 400 dead.

Malaysian foreign minister, Anifah Aman, charged Suu Kyi was ‘‘doing nothing,’’ and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the situation amounted to ‘‘genocide.’’

Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai condemned the”tragic and shameful treatment’’ of the Rohingya, saying she was ‘‘still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same.’’

On Thursday, Suu Kyi told reporters in Myanmar that it is ‘‘a little unreasonable’’ to expect her government to have resolved the Rohingya crisis in the 18 months her party has been in power. She emphasized that she is focused on speeding up development and economic opportunity to help alleviate some of the tensions.

Her government also has pledged to implement some of the recommendations on Rakhine state made last month by an advisory commission led by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan.