The Nobel laureate was once jailed for standing up to Burma’s generals, but she returns from China for 70th birthday celebrations under fire for not defending persecuted Rohingya minority
By Philip Sherwell | 5:39AM BST 19 Jun 2015
It is an age at which most people think of slowing down, relaxing, even retiring. But as Aung San Suu Kyi celebrates her 70th birthday on Friday, the Burmese opposition leader is also plunging into the country’s first genuine electoral contest for decades just days after returning from a high-profile visit to Beijing.
While a military-drafted constitution may bar her from the presidency, she is on the verge of becoming the country’s most powerful politician.
Yet the woman who was once the world’s most famous prisoner of conscience, renowned for putting democratic principle over personal freedom, is also facing an unprecedented wave of criticism – for her failure to take a stand.
For as the world has watched in horror the images of desperate boat people from Burma’s oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, the Nobel Peace prize winner has been notably silent on their persecution in the majority Buddhist nation.
The human rights champion is under fire from former international allies for abandoning the moral high ground in what appears to be a simple political calculus – that there are no votes for her National League for Democracy in supporting the Rohingyas, a group widely reviled in Burma.
Defenders contend that there is little that she can achieve in opposition and that the best hope for all Burmese is served by not undermining her party’s prospects in elections expected to be held in November.
“She is in a very tough position,” one Western official told The Telegraph. “She will only set back the NLD’s cause if she speaks out for the Rohingya. The reality is that will help nobody if she loses seats as a result.”
But for a woman who spent 15 years under house arrest and was lauded by the international community as a human rights heroine, the shift to full-time politician is increasingly tarnished.
In its 1991 citation for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian awarding committee said that it wished “to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means”.
The Rohingyas who have been subjected to pogroms, forced into camps and stripped of their identity cards, may wonder where those “unflagging efforts” are now.
They are not alone. Even her fellow Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have struggled to hide their dismay.
The people of Burma “desperately need … moral and principled leadership”, Archbishop Tutu noted. And the Dalai Lama told The Australian newspaper that he had urged Ms Suu Kyi to act on the issue.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “In the Burmese case I hope Aung San Suu Kyi, as a Nobel laureate, can do something.”
In a rare interview with the Washington Post after her return from Beijing, the newspaper noted that she “spoke tersely” about issues ranging from Sino-Burmese relations to Rohingya statelessness.
She again skipped the chance to take a firm position on the Rohingyas and Buddhist extremism. The issue needed to be addressed “very, very carefully”, she said, although she did add that the current government was failing to deal with the problem. “I don’t think they’re doing enough about it,” she said, guardedly.
Although Ms Suu Kyi’s party is expected to win the forthcoming elections, she is barred from being elected president by a clause in the constitution that prevents candidates with foreign relatives from being head of state. Ms Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British academic and her two adult sons are foreign citizens.
Ms Suu Kyi told the Washington Post that members of the NLD “do worry that the reforms will turn out to be a total illusion” – one of her stronger statements on the progress of reform under a regime dominated by former generals.
Nonetheless, Ms Suu Kyi could still emerge by the end of the year as an influential power-broker, wielding great influence as head of the leading party.
That prospective role was acknowledged with her invitation to meet President Xi Jinping in China, a country that had long sought to protect the Burmese generals from pressure to release her.
Ms Suu Kyi received a warm reception in Beijing. But she said nothing, in public at least, about the fate of another fellow Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who is behind bars in China.
The parties will roll for her over this weekend – one in the capital Naypyidaw on the big day itself and another on Sunday for dignitaries in Rangoon.
Her supporters will celebrate a remarkable transformation for “the Lady” from her years of isolation in her lakeside home. But in the camps of Rakhine state, the persecuted Rohingyas will be hoping that she re-discovers the defiance that so impressed the world.