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Aung San Suu Kyi and the Violent Politics of Peace

When President Obama meets this week with Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, he'll be meeting with a calculated politician, not an innocent champion of democracy.
Imagen vía Khin Maung Win/AP

Two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize will meet this week in Myanmar. One, President Barack Obama, is often criticized for his use of force and violence from Guantanamo Bay to the Middle East. The other, Aung San Suu Kyi, is celebrated as a human rights icon by Western governments — and seldom criticized by them for her tolerance of force and violence in her own country.

Is it because she's a woman? A Buddhist? The West's great hope for true democracy in Myanmar?


It's a combination of all three. After Suu Kyi's sudden emergence as a celebrated advocate for democracy in Myanmar, she was placed on house arrest by the country's military junta in 1989. She spent much of the following two decades in captivity — she was awarded her Peace Prize in 1991 — until her release in 2010. At that point, Suu Kyi announced her intent to pursue politics.

The West, which firmly believes democracies are more inclined toward peace, quickly pinned its lofty hopes for the democratization of Myanmar on Suu Kyi — choosing to ignore her politics in the process. Speaking of good governance and reform in an Oxford-educated accent, the woman known simply as The Lady was the light at the end of decades of military dictatorship in Myanmar, someone to whom world leaders and wealthy philanthropists alike flocked for meetings and photo ops.

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But The Lady's particular brand of democracy appears to be focused more on regime change — and her ascent to power — than on the principle of democratically empowering multiple voices. "Ang Sung Suu Kyi's party may in fact allow less diversity of opinions than the military junta she fought against," says Sumana Rajarethnam, a Myanmar analyst with the Economist. "She speaks for the party."

In other words, Obama is not meeting with a peaceful protestor — he is meeting with a powerful politician. And like any good politician would, Suu Kyi is likely to draw Obama's attention away from the ongoing bloodshed in her country and toward the constitutional blocks that prevent her from running for president. (Myanmar does not allow anyone with foreign family members to be president; Suu Kyi married a foreigner and has British children.) She may even gently lecture Obama, as she has been known to do to world leaders, for failing to understand the complexities of her country.


Suu Kyi believes that the government of Myanmar should be inclusive of more voices — but not necessarily all of them.

Suu Kyi is a Buddhist, practicing a religion that is mistakenly believed by many to be inherently peaceful, just as Islam is mistakenly believed to be inherently violent. As monks in Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka have shown in recent years, any religion, when mapped onto a political agenda, can encourage violence.

Within Myanmar's borders is Rakhine state, home to the Rohingya, an ethnic and stateless Muslim minority that continues to be on the receiving end of radical Buddhist intolerance. The past year has seen brutal massacres, massive displacement, and claims of crimes against humanity, as the Myanmar government and military is — at best — complicit in attempts by Buddhists to cleanse the country of the Rohingya. Suu Kyi's political position can be read through her silence — she claims she is silent because she is maintaining neutrality, and the West seems to have trouble seeing the blood on the hands of the Buddhist Lady.

Beyond Buddhism, Suu Kyi describes herself as being influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's approaches to non-violence. A model of peaceful resistance, Gandhi believed in a free India — but he didn't necessarily believe that all Indians should be entirely free. Even as she has mimicked Gandhi's peaceful protests, Suu Kyi has been a Burmese nationalist. She believes that the government of Myanmar should be inclusive of more voices — but not necessarily all of them.


During her time in house arrest, Suu Kyi embodied the belief that fundamentally, women are more peaceful than men. She quickly became a symbol for women's empowerment in the developing world, where most women are presumed to be victimized or vulnerable. "I think only a woman can understand the troubles, the problems, the discrimination, that other women have to face," she once remarked. But it would appear she thinks this about only certain troubles — or certain women.

She was happy to discuss with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina how to make more chickens and cows available to women, but neither woman addressed the systematic rape of the Rohingya women caught on the border between their two countries, nor the proposed laws requiring a Buddhist woman to obtain permission before marrying a Muslim man. Both pushed for the inclusion of women in formal government institutions, yet neither allow Rohingya women a political voice to speak out against the continual and sometimes deadly discrimination they face.

As a celebrated woman vocally committed to democratic ideals, Suu Kyi is an obvious strategic choice for the United States to support in a country undergoing a long, messy transition. And as such, the US may very well overlook her trespasses as they overlooked those of other valuable allies. Suu Kyi also remains enormously popular in Myanmar. One Burmese woman surveyed by election monitors in a rural village said, "Our party may not have money or resources, but it doesn't matter. We have The Lady." Despite this, it is unlikely that the constitution will be altered for her benefit, and Obama will reportedly not push for it during his trip.

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Still, Suu Kyi may end up being viewed as a parallel to presumed 2016 US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (who once likened Suu Kyi to fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela). Of the two women, the West is likely to continue to adore the one who speaks softly, and critique the one who carries a big stick.

Whether because of her religion, gender, status as an icon of democracy, or location in the developing world, Suu Kyi should not be shielded from criticism. And as the two Nobel Peace Prize winners sit across from each other this week, it should be noted that the politics of The Lady and Obama are equally complex.

Nimmi Gowrinathan is a scholar and policy analyst. Follow her on Twitter: @nimmideviarchy