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Suu Kyi alienates the media she once entranced

Amid Rohingya crisis, Nobel laureate treasures strong family link to the military

Many believe Aung San Suu Kyi’s aura is gone after making one tone-deaf statement after another on recent foreign trips.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Few people have enjoyed more uncritical press coverage or been the subject of so many fawning biographies as Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader and the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate.

But many believe Suu Kyi's aura is gone, and that she has feet of clay. Both aloof and imperious, her infrequent encounters with the press have become "lectures and platitudes," according to one Burmese editor. Of late, Myanmar's 73-year-old state counselor has made one tone-deaf statement after another to foreigners.

Addressing a half-filled gathering at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi last week, she dashed hopes for a presidential pardon for two young Reuters journalists. The two have been sentenced to seven years in prison for breaking a 1923 British colonial law designed to enforce the presence of a foreign occupying power. The journalists had been investigating atrocities committed last year against the Rohingya Muslim minority in the northwestern state of Rakhine. United Nations officials have described the killings as textbook ethnic cleansing.

"I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all -- it had to do with an Official Secrets Act," Suu Kyi said, responding to a question about the journalists' conviction. "If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong."

Suu Kyi's words met a ferocious response, particularly in light of strong evidence of entrapment by the arresting police officers. "This is a disgraceful attempt by Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the indefensible," said Amnesty International's Minar Pimple. "From start to finish, the case was nothing more than a brazen attack on freedom of expression and independent journalism in Myanmar."

Others were equally vocal. "She fails to understand that real 'rule of law' means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary," said Phil Robertson, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, condemned Suu Kyi's remarks on Twitter. "First, in denial about the abuse the Burmese military placed on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable," she wrote.

Aung San Suu Kyi attends an event in July marking the 71st anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs' Mausoleum in Yangon, which is dedicated to fallen independence heroes including her father, Gen. Aung San.   © Reuters

"Many observers saw this trial as a test of freedom of the media, democracy and the rule of law in the country," Federica Mogherini, who leads the European Union's foreign policy, told the European parliament. "It is pretty clear that the test was failed."

Suu Kyi's comments in Hanoi rekindled the severe criticism of her last month in Singapore when she described three generals in her cabinet as "rather sweet." The three include Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe, the minister of home affairs. His ministry controls the police, and is therefore directly linked to the Reuters case.

For decades, Myanmar has been criticized for failure to establish the rule of law. A hodgepodge of pre- and post-independence laws have been used to suppress opposition and criticism. Myanmar's juntas always claimed to be doing things "according to the law."

"To argue that the letter of the law was followed is to willfully ignore all of these glaringly obvious shortcomings," Pimple said after Suu Kyi's Hanoi comments. "It's also eerily similar to the line taken by the military generals when Aung San Suu Kyi herself was locked up."

Suu Kyi built her reputation after a mass pro-democracy uprising in 1988. With bows to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., she called for peaceful resistance, political reform, national reconciliation and respect for human rights. As a pro-democracy icon, she was always stronger on Buddhist and humanitarian principles than clear policies.

During about 15 years of off-and-on house arrest by the military in her lakeside villa in Yangon, the few correspondents occasionally able to reach her tended to place her on a pedestal, overlooking her political and economic inexperience. She was hailed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, among many others, and showered with awards and accolades. A growing number of these have been withdrawn following the exodus to Bangladesh of over 700,000 terrified Rohingya, but not the Nobel.

Despite the military's evident enmity toward her, Suu Kyi over the years has shown herself to be more than conciliatory. She makes frequent rose-tinted allusions to her father, Gen. Aung San, the pre-independence hero and founder of the Burma Independence Army in 1941 backed by Japan. But her father, who was assassinated in 1947 by a jealous political rival, played very little role in the development of the military.

The armed forces were developed by Aung San's nemesis, Gen. Ne Win, whose coup in 1962 set the nation on a regressive, xenophobic and economically disastrous path. The nation's modern history has been further blighted by more than a dozen ethnic insurgencies.

Even in the darkest times over the past three decades, Suu Kyi often referred to her military oppressors somewhat deferentially as "the authorities." She has been open about her weakness for men in khaki. "I was taught that my father was the founder of the army, and that all soldiers were his sons, and that therefore they were part of his family," she told Desert Island Discs, a popular BBC radio program, in 2012.

"I am fond of the army," she said. "People don't like me saying that. There are many people who have criticized me for being a poster girl for the army -- very flattering to be seen as a poster girl for anything at this time of life."

Asked about military atrocities that include recruiting child soldiers, planting land mines as well as rape and murder, Suu Kyi said: "I don't like what they've done at all. But if you love somebody, I think you love her or him despite, not because of, and you always look forward to a time when they will be able to redeem themselves."

Suu Kyi also clearly signaled her position on the Rohingya issue in 2012 following an earlier round of strife.

"I didn't come into politics to be popular," she said. "If I were to take sides in the situation in the Rakhine ... it would create more animosity between the two communities. Violence has been committed on both sides. People who are afraid of being burned in their beds are not going to talk to one another and try and find a way out of the situation. I have been saying all along what we need is security and the rule of law."

The BBC's Fergal Keane, a longtime admirer of Suu Kyi who had reported ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the Balkans, challenged Suu Kyi on developments in Rakhine State in April 2017, a few months before the main Rohingya exodus. "Do you ever worry that you will be remembered as the champion of human rights, the Nobel laureate, who failed to stand up to ethnic cleansing in her own country?" he asked.

"No, because I don't think there's ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression for what's happening," said Suu Kyi.

"It's what I think I saw there, I have to say," said Keane.

"Fergal, I think there's a lot of hostility there," said Suu Kyi.

With so much opprobrium now being heaped upon her, and having lost so much international support, at least Suu Kyi cannot be faulted for inconsistency. The rule of law in Myanmar remains as elusive as ever, however.

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