Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor of Burma (Myanmar) and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, met up with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in early June this year. State Counsellor is the equivalent position of prime minister. The meeting in Budapest is significant because both leaders bonded over their shared hostility towards Muslim immigration. Both leaders agreed that immigration from Islamic nations presents a threat to their respective countries.
One can only imagine the howls of outrage if these leaders had expressed their mutually agreed disdain towards Jews, or other ethno-religious minorities. Be that as it may, Aung San Suu Kyi, upheld as an icon of democracy and human rights in the West, has provided credibility to Islamophobic bigotry by forming a cross-continental alliance with Orban, a far-right and anti-immigration politician known for his hateful views.
Lamenting the growth of Muslim populations in Europe has long been a staple lie recycled by Orban. A viciously anti-immigrant politician, Orban has called for the expulsion of asylum seekers from Hungary, demanded that the European Union impose harsh restrictions against refugees from Muslim-majority countries seeking entry into Europe, and has praised the Hungarian wartime fascist regime of Admiral Horthy. The latter, allied with Nazi Germany, persecuted and killed members of another ethnic-religious minority, the Jewish people.
Orban is on record endorsing the neo-fascistic ‘Great Replacement‘ conspiracy theory, promoted by racist and white nationalist groups internationally. This paranoid racial fantasy holds that white populations face the threat of being swamped by non-white – and in particular Muslim – immigrants. The Hungarian Prime Minister has spoken of Europe as a Christian entity under existential threat from Islam and Muslim minorities.
It is beyond the scope of the current article to analyse the many flaws and falsities promoted by ultra-rightists such as Orban regarding Muslim immigration. However, for Aung San Suu Kyi to lend a platform for such views is not only reprehensible, but a perverse inversion of reality. It is the Rohingya minority in Burma – a largely Muslim population – that has been the target of ethnic cleansing and state-sanctioned violence in that country.
In fact, Suu Kyi has consistently downplayed, and outright denied, the plight of the Rohingya people in Burma. While not using as explicitly Islamophobic language as Orban, Suu Kyi has refused to use the term Rohingya when describing the problems in Rakhine state, the region where the Rohingya are located. The Burmese military, motivated by an ideology of Buddhist supremacism, has been carrying out a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya for many years.
However, since assuming office in 2016, Suu Kyi has remained silent on the Rohingya issue, and has done her utmost to whitewash the actions of the Burmese military. The Rohingya have been forcibly displaced, with thousands fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh, or forming makeshift refugee camps as internally-displaced persons. The United Nations has documented the homicidal campaign against the Rohingya by the powerful Burmese military – which includes the tactics of rape, burning villages and denial of basic social services.
Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize back in 1991, ostensibly for her commitment to nonviolence and peaceful dialogue. Yet here, by combining with Hungary’s Prime Minister, she is providing a ‘peaceful’ face for an underlying campaign of hate and ethnic violence. Promoted by the Nobel committee as an outstanding voice of the powerless against power, she became an icon of universalist human rights and peace from the 1990s onwards.
Leading the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi was feted by Britain, the United States and other imperialist powers as a democratic alternative to the rule of the generals. From 1989 until 2010, she spent in one form of detention or another, or under arrest by the junta. Her willingness to stay in Burma, and face imprisonment for her purported commitment to democratic principles, invited comparisons to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.
The Burmese regime, playing the political game, released Suu Kyi, held elections in the country, and the NLD took office. While keeping a firm grip on power, the junta made enough concessions to at least maintain the pretence of a democratic transition. Suu Kyi, hardly a political novice, saw her moment to lead Burma – and she is not an innocent bystander with regard to the machinations and policies of the Burmese regime.
Hailing the 2015 elections, the United States and Britain rapidly dropped their criticisms of the Burmese regime, and welcomed it as a ‘developing democracy’ under Suu Kyi. The latter duly reciprocated, allowing Western investment in the country, pushing for the privatisation of state-owned assets, and demanding that the US and Britain not refer to the Rohingya minority as a distinct ethnic group.
Sholto Byrnes, longtime journalist and commentator, writes that the halo that once crowned Suu Kyi, has not only slipped, but has been replaced by a badge of shame. Her failure to condemn the Burmese military’s murderous rampage against the Rohingya is a serious failing in itself. Her exemplary reputation as a beacon of human rights has taken a battering.
Actively seeking an alliance with the ultra-rightist and racist Orban, is not just a dereliction of duty. Suu Kyi has demonstrated her true colours as an ethnic chauvinist. Suu Kyi’s fall from grace, and the demolition of her anointed status as a democracy icon, exposes the fraudulent pretext that is ‘human rights’. This is not a denial of human rights per se, but a realisation that ‘human rights’ is a cynical ploy used by calculating politicians to promote predatory agendas.
The comparisons of Suu Kyi with Mandela and Gandhi are woefully inaccurate and misleading. The more appropriate historical comparison, and one that highlights the similarities in political outlooks, is between Aung San Suu Kyi and former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. Both political figures are characterised by an ethnic chauvinism that denied human rights to the Rohingya and Palestinian peoples respectively.
The political trajectories of both these political leaders demonstrate a ravenous egotism and sense of entitlement. Rather than govern for the promotion of gender and ethnic solidarity, they both display a narrow commitment to building states based on ethnic-supremacist exclusivity. Suu Kyi and Orban have found common ground – racial and ethnic exclusion. It is high time to build bonds of solidarity and break down falsehoods and fear.