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Why Aung San Suu Kyi 'Can't Be Blamed' for Myanmar's Ethnic Cleansing

by Matt Schiavenza
25 September 2017

A grave humanitarian crisis right now is occurring in Myanmar, where more than 400,000 members of the country's Rohingya minority have fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a campaign of rape, destruction, and killing carried out by Myanmar's military. The crisis — deemed a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations Human Rights chief — has also damaged the reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader and iconic Nobel Peace laureate, who has downplayed the grievances of the Rohingya and refrained from criticizing the military in her public appearances.

Aung San Suu Kyi's silence has attracted widespread condemnation, not least from fellow Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. But in an appearance at Asia Society on Friday, Australia Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argued that Myanmar's leader "may be taking the blame for matters that are outside her control."

Bishop is referring to Myanmar's convoluted political system in which Aung San Suu Kyi — the country's most powerful civilian leader (though not the president) — shares power with a military that controls, among other things, foreign affairs and border relations. The National League for Democracy's victory in 2015 parliamentary elections formally ended more than five decades of military rule in Myanmar and provided hope that one of Asia's poorest and most isolated countries was turning a corner. But the Rohingya crisis "has clearly has exposed the strength and influence of the military in Myanmar at a time when the world was celebrating its democracy," said Bishop.

"It's a reality check that has come to a shock to many."

Vilifying Aung San Suu Kyi, however, belies an uncomfortable possibility that a Myanmar without her in power may be in significantly worse shape.

"She has to be part of the solution," said Bishop. "Because otherwise, we'll be going back decades in terms of Myanmar's growth and prosperity."

Watch the complete video of Bishop's Asia Society appearance and conversation with Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd below: