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Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi Criticized For Treatment Of Rohingya


In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, it's been over a year since one of the world's most famous prisoners stepped into power. Before she was elected to lead the country as state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi was a pro-democracy opposition figure kept under house arrest for 15 years by the previous military government. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.

Now Suu Kyi has come under criticism from the international community and fellow Nobel laureates. Government soldiers in Myanmar are accused of committing atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority, including widespread killing and rape. Suu Kyi has downplayed the accusations. Here she is in a recent interview with the BBC's Fergal Keane.


AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I don't think there's ethnic cleansing going on. I think ethnic cleansing is too strong of an expression to use for what's happening. A lot of...

FERGAL KEANE: It's what I think I saw there. I have to say.

SUU KYI: Fergal, I think there's a lot of hostility there. It's not just a matter of ethnic cleansing, as you put it. It's a matter of people on different sides of a divide.

CORNISH: Earlier I spoke with Poppy McPherson, a journalist based in Myanmar, about how Suu Kyi's stance has affected her image as a champion of international human rights.

POPPY MCPHERSON: I think it's very badly affected her image. People in the West particularly are very disappointed and, in some cases, disgusted by her reluctance to stand up for this group who are extremely persecuted.

At home, it's a little different because a lot of people love her almost unconditionally. And the Rohingya are very unpopular and discriminated against and denigrated within the country. In fact, many people consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. So she has to walk this fine line. If she stands up for them, she might lose support at home.

CORNISH: And so you're saying she's essentially reflecting popular sentiment.

MCPHERSON: Exactly. Well, many people believe it's a political move. Even if she wanted to speak out - which it's not clear that she would anyway - it would be very unpopular for her to do so.

CORNISH: Do you think there's just a disconnect here between the Western liberal view of who she would be and who she actually is? I mean put aside these kind of political-domestic lines she's trying to walk. Is she what, you know, the Nobel Peace (laughter) Prize committee thought she was?

MCPHERSON: She's - yeah, she's very different from what a lot of people in the liberal world expected she would be. I think that she's far more conservative in her social views than many people thought she was. She appears to be much more concerned about her reputation and being able to maintain power in Myanmar than she is about being a human rights advocate. She's made that clear that she's a politician. She's not Mother Theresa.

CORNISH: Even when she took power, people discussed the limits on that power, right? I mean constitutionally, she's locked out from even being president because she has foreign-born children. People think that's a provision of the Constitution put in there specifically to prevent her from becoming president. So what does this mean in terms of how it plays out in the politics? I mean are there actually limits to what she can do? Is she hemmed in by the military in any way?

MCPHERSON: She is. I mean the military retains control of key institutions including the army. So the events in Rakhine State where the Rohingya Muslim population live - the army crackdown was completely beyond her control. She has no power over those forces. And that's a real lock on her power.

But her government does have quite a lot of scope over other ministries, which a lot of her defenders say, oh, the military completely blocks everything, and she's not really in control, which I think is a simplification of the amount that her government could actually do.

CORNISH: That was journalist Poppy McPherson. She's based in Myanmar. She visited us today in our Washington studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SONG, "THIS BOOK IS A MOVIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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