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Where is Burma’s Moral Leadership?

After the Holocaust, the world pledged that such a genocide would never happen again. We have since witnessed its horrors in Rwanda and the Balkans. Now, it appears to be happening again in Burma, demonstrating the dearth of moral leadership at the highest levels of Burma’s government.

Article by Christopher Walsh September 12, 2018 //   7 minute read
Members of Burma's Muslim Rohingya minority walk through a broken road in Cox's Bazer, Bangladesh in September 2017. Photo by Sk Hasan Ali

After the Holocaust, the world pledged that such a genocide would never happen again. We have since witnessed its horrors in Rwanda and the Balkans. Now, it appears to be happening again in Burma. While numerous ethnic groups across the country are persecuted by the military, a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya are being systematically eradicated. According to testimonials, mass killings, village burnings, and rape have been employed with devastating effectiveness, driving more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. A damning UN report not only calls for top military leaders to appear before the International Criminal Court, but also argues the civilian government is complicit in these atrocities. 

Sadly, the Rohingya people’s plight demonstrates the dearth of moral leadership at the highest levels of Burma’s government. Decades of harsh military rule have impaired the country’s ability to produce principled leaders who might have prevented these atrocities. This, of course, is the nature of all dictatorships; they are vehicles that sustain the power of a selfish elite while isolating their people from truth and knowledge.

For 50 years, Burma’s oppressed citizens hungered for moral leadership capable of leading them to peace, prosperity, and freedom. It is no surprise that Aung San Suu Kyi, a globally-recognized champion of human rights and democracy, attracted enormous devotion across the country. For decades, she challenged Burma’s junta by advocating for a free, democratic society through non-violent change. For this, the country’s military leaders condemned Aung San Suu Kyi to 15 years of house arrest.

Then, something remarkable happened. The junta released Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 and gradually loosened its grip on society. In November 2015, she won an overwhelming victory in the country’s elections, making her the de facto head of government. Seemingly, Burma had reached a turning point in its long struggle toward freedom.

Three years later, Burma’s civilian government has lost its sheen, and the military remains the country’s dominant political actor. Just last week, the government crept back to its authoritarian past, sentencing two Reuters journalists to seven-year prison terms for investigating the Rohingya issue. These realities reflect a constitutional problem in Burma as key government positions and 25 percent of seats in parliament are reserved for military. This makes greater political change extremely difficult.

How does this affect Aung San Suu Kyi? Internationally, the iconic former prisoner of conscience has suffered intensifying criticism for her silence on the Rohingya crisis. It was recently reported that she will be stripped of her Freedom of Edinburgh award, making it the seventh such honor to be revoked.

In Burma, some accounts suggest Aung San Suu Kyi is an insular principal who has little desire to cultivate new leaders and inject fresh energy into the country’s democratization project. If true, she must know this style of leadership will only drive Burma backward toward authoritarianism.

There is an argument that the world is placing too much blame on Aung San Suu Kyi. Given the military’s authority, some understandably ask, “What can Aung San Suu Kyi realistically do given her limited political power?” 

I would answer that question with one of my own. What would the Aung San Suu Kyi who rallied her people toward freedom and democracy during her famous 1988 Shwedagon Pagoda speech say to her present-day self? Perhaps this, drawn from that same speech:

The strength of the people is growing day by day. Such growing strength has to be controlled by discipline. Undisciplined strength or strength which is not in keeping with right principles can never lead to a beneficial fruition. It could lead to danger for many. Therefore, please continue to use our strength in accordance with rightful principles. At this juncture when the people’s strength is almost at its peak, we should take extreme care not to oppress the weaker side. That is the kind of evil practice which would cause the people to lose their dignity and honor.

A democratic transition requires principled leadership capable of navigating complex landscapes. It also demands the courage to make unpopular decisions and protect the most vulnerable members of society. Think of Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Lech Walesa in Poland. Nelson Mandela in South Africa. That’s not to say these figures always demonstrated flawless character, but they possessed the vision, boldness, and moral clarity to respect human dignity and steer their countries toward freedom.

For Aung San Suu Kyi today, the example of Pope John Paul II in Eastern Europe (and her younger self in Burma) demonstrates the power moral authority can have against a regime even when one doesn’t possess direct political influence. These ingredients are seemingly missing at the highest levels of Burma’s government.

For this reason, the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Program is developing a new generation of principled leaders in Burma capable of delivering positive change in their society. They are open to new, innovative ideas. They view their country’s diversity as a strength. They show remarkable optimism and resilience that inspires others.

Let me introduce you to a few of them:

  • Aung Kyaw Moe is a Rohingya activist who founded the Center for Social Integrity in Burma to deliver humanitarian aid to the Rohingya people.
  • Phyoe Phyoe Aung is an education reform activist who was imprisoned for months after peacefully protesting unjust laws.
  • Wai Wai Nu is a former political prisoner and one of the world’s leading activists for the Rohingya people.

Our Liberty and Leadership scholars are doing great work, and they need our support. We believe their leadership will be the rudder that steers Burma toward a better future. They will take their people toward prosperity and opportunity. Their example will help place Burma on the path to peace.





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