Aung San Suu Kyi: The Cost of Silence of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner

By Adithya Sivakumar

In the midst of the instability present in Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, as well as the Persian Gulf War, the world received one gleam of hope from Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese citizen awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent methods to resist the ruling Burmese military junta. Although she was unable to receive the award at the time due to her presence in house arrest, the awarding of the prize symbolized that the world was behind the fight against authoritarianism, and that if you were willing to make a stand, the world was ready to back you.

Nearly twenty years later, elections were opened in Myanmar, and although Suu Kyi was not allowed to participate, she was released from house arrest, and soon contested her party in increasingly-freer elections, which allowed her to become the leader of the opposition. In 2015, the military junta finally held openly-contested elections, and her party took control of the country. It appeared that Suu Kyi’s destiny was realized: democracy had taken hold, and Myanmar looked towards a hopeful future.

However, even with Suu Kyi’s triumphs, they came with the cost of ignoring a sizable, growing problem within the nation-state, one that threatens Suu Kyi’s record as a defender of human rights, and instead leads her down the path of the dictators who suppressed her. That problem, unfortunately, is masked within her own people: it is the plight of the Rohingya.

The Rohingya: A History of their Conflict

The Rohingya are a group of people primarily characterized by their religion, which is a variant of Sunni Islam. This group traces its origins in Myanmar through immigration starting in the fifteenth century, under the tutelage of the Arakan Kingdom, and continuing under British rule of then-British India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are also very different than other groups in Myanmar, “ethnically, linguistically, and religiously,” especially the dominant Buddhist population.

These stark differences enabled Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya since the country’s independence in 1948, including the proclamations that denied the people status as a recognized ethnic group within the country. Instead, they were commonly regarded as illegal Bengali immigrants from the neighboring country of Bangladesh, despite the residence of the group for centuries, as citizenship laws only conferred status on those considered “indigenous” groups. These types of laws left the Rohingya as a stateless people, leading to a serious deprivation in basic human rights for these individuals. The government also advanced processes that only allowed two children per family of the Rohingya, limited movement outside of certain villages, and constantly enforced a concept of otherness, calling the Rohingya “Bengali” in temporary identification cards in a reference to their South Asian heritage, instead of their desired identifier.

The plight of this group came into full focus in 2012, with the outburst of sectarian violence in Rakhine State, where many Rohingya resided. Resulting from accusations against a group of Rohingya men surrounding the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, the violence killed more than 280 people, and displaced more than 120,000 people. Many Rohingya began fleeing the country, fearing an increased crackdown from the government, prompting a refugee crisis that reverberated throughout Southeast Asia. Countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh were faced with an influx of individuals, and much like the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, countries were unaware on how to deal with the large amount of migrants, creating a large number of displaced persons within Southeast Asia.

Where Aung San Suu Kyi Has Failed

Aung San Suu Kyi could not have done much in the initial creation of the restrictive citizenship laws, as she was either in house arrest or away from Myanmar. However, since the transition to democracy in 2015, Suu Kyi has seemingly had a large opportunity to expand the rights of the Rohingya. With increased reforms in the government, the potential for citizenship reform also seemed possible. Unfortunately, with the outburst of sectarian violence, supporting the rights of the Rohingya became politically unfavorable. Under pressure from Buddhist nationalists in 2015, the Myanmar government revoked temporary residence cards from the Rohingya, effectively silencing their opportunity to vote in the national election in which Suu Kyi won by a landslide.

In part due to this electoral result, as well as pressure from the electorate that voted for her, Suu Kyi’s administration has been criticized as being largely silent on addressing the crisis in the Rakhine state. One state-run commission did not necessarily recommend changing the discriminatory citizenship laws, but rather just incorporating the Rohingya in the same law. Anti-Muslim sentiment is high in Myanmar, causing Suu Kyi to have little impetus to risk political expediency, despite large amounts of pressure from the United States and the European Union.

Solving the Rohingya situation in Myanmar is not simply a matter of making Suu Kyi take another stand for democratic ideals. Myanmar is filled with a complex history, one filled with exclusion and sectarianism. Making constitutional changes will likely not cause substantive change, as seen in many nations around the world. However, Myanmar has the unique opportunity of having a unifying figure, one that is seen by the rest of the world as a marker of peace. If Suu Kyi can force democracy in a state ruled by military strife, there is no reason why she cannot work to bring peace to Rakhine state, especially in a time in which her people need it the most.

South Korea’s Political Changes

As of March 10, 2017, the South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been impeached after it was discovered a citizen with no government post, Choi Soon-sil, was acting as a “shadow president” with significant influence over Park, undergoing executive decision making and even was extorting government money. In addition, other individuals, including Lee Jae-yong, heir to the Samsung empire was arrested for bribery and embezzlement of funds in exchange for political favors from Choi and Park. Although this scandal was revealed in October of 2016, the unanimous Constitutional Court decision to uphold Park’s impeachment is making huge changes now on South Korea. For one, South Korea is currently left without an elected president as Hwang Kyo-Ahn has taken over as the acting president. But, more importantly, South Korean political parties are gearing up for the next presidential election, which is expected to be held on May 9, 2017.

The current power vacuum left by ex-President Park has substantially changed the political landscape in South Korea. Park’s ruling conservative party, the Saenuri Party, has since split into two factions, the Barun party, which opposes Park, and the Korea Freedom Party, which still supports Park. Part of this split is because there is no sole leader, and hopes of finding one dissolved when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, predicted to be the frontrunner of the upcoming elections and unofficial leader of the Saenuri Party, dropped out of the presidential race in early February. The split of the Saenuri Party will cause a huge loss of power for the conservative party and for their candidates; on the other hand, this also allows the liberal party, which has not been in control of the government for many years, to regain power in South Korea.

The liberal Democratic Party has been given the opportunity to return to power in the coming election, which CNN calls a “campaign frenzy,” given just a 60-day period between impeachment and election. A Gallup Korea poll shows Moon Jae-in as the front runner for the Democratic candidate with 32% of the people polled supporting him, 15% ahead of the next highest candidate. Reuters predicts Moon to become the next president of South Korea, although his leadership is yet to be determined given his four other potential Democratic candidates. The existing situation in South Korea all but points to the liberal party taking control of the government from the conservative party.

If Moon Jae-in and the liberal party does win the presidential election, which is the most likely scenario, South Korea will certainly push for new developments in the Asian-Pacific world. One issue addressed will be the current U.S.-South Korean relationship. The U.S. developed plans in the summer of 2016 to place Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea as a defense mechanism against potential threats in Asia. This plan was signed and agreed to by ex-President Park, and was moved forward by interim President Hwang. However, many Democratic candidates, Moon included, are opposed to this plan and are critical of the recently strong U.S.-South Korean relationship developed under the conservative rule, saying that the U.S. intention to deploy THAAD missiles should not be trusted. This could put a large dent in the relationship between South Korea and one of its greatest allies of late, the United States. On the other hand, liberals in power could foster greater relationships with closer, Asian allies – both China and Russia have strongly opposed U.S. THAAD missiles, citing great security threats. The Chinese-South Korean relationship stands to heavily benefit from a liberal president, as South Korean liberals are heavily critical of U.S. involvement in South Korea, but much more welcoming to a Chinese presence.

In addition, a liberal win in South Korea could lead to faster peace between South and North Korea. Presidential-hopeful Moon has made fostering friendly relationships with North Korea a centerpiece of his campaign, something that liberals have historically supported during their last power regime between 1998-2008. During this time, South Korean enacted Sunshine Policies, designed to fix relationships between North and South Korea through openness, aid, and trust. Part of Moon’s plan to tend this relationship is to reopen the joint-venture factory in Kaesong between the two countries, which was closed by ex-President Park following North Korean nuclear missile tests. While this would certainly benefit South Korea’s diplomacy and creating better relationships with North Korea, it would set back the UN’s plan to force North Korea to stop its nuclear tests, as scholars have called this proposed move, “a major step backward for taming Pyongyang.” This would set back the U.S. and many UN nations’ plan to force North Korea away from nuclear testing via stronger sanctions.

While the UN and the U.S. have become wearier and more aggressive against North Korean nuclear tests, a changing political landscape in South Korean may not bode well for these plans. Liberal leaders in South Korea have a history of becoming more friendly towards North Koreans, and Moon states he wants to do the same. The next South Korean president will have a difficult job, balancing relations between the U.S., China, and North Korea. In addition to these international affairs, the next South Korean president will also have the job in mending domestic trust within the government following the presidential impeachment. Given the state of turmoil the conservative party in South Korea is in, the stage is nearly set for Liberals to assume power in South Korea’s government under the likely Moon presidency, which is something that is sure to have large impacts on international relationships.

The Women’s Movement Voices in South America

By Victoria Herring

Women around the world rallied together on March 8th to celebrate International Women’s Day. The celebration turned into both a triumphant and somber note, as women went on strike, left their jobs early and took to the streets to protest the ominous wage gap, among other issues the movement fights to eradicate. This particular day was indeed one of the most highly charged and political of its kind in recent history; the changing of hands in many political systems has urged both men and women to speak out against problems that affect the lives of millions of women worldwide, including both workplace and reproductive rights. This day marked the second major event of the women’s movement after the international marches on January 21st. Titled “The Day Without Women”, its purpose was to bring light to the inequalities faced by females on a global scale.

This past week, South America’s turbulent political climate became once again surrounded by tumultuous protests crowding their busy avenues. This time, the “manifestations,” as they are known to be called, were not concerning the government but were concerning the rights of women and protesting the increase of violence against women that has become prevalent in recent years. Although some South American countries were among the first to welcome women presidents and prime ministers, inequality nonetheless prevails in various aspects of life. Domestic violence and femicide, particularly among romantic partners, is an epidemic in Latin America. Between January and October of 2015, 223 women died as a result of gender-based violence in Argentina, according to La Casa del Encuentro. Since 2008, there have been over 2,224 reported cases of femicide in the country. The particularly large number of attacks on females at the hands of men inspired the hashtag #NiUnaMenos, meaning “not one less”. The inspiration for the hashtag arose from Mexican poet and activist Susana Chávez, who was murdered in 2011 and was known for her advocacy against gender-based violence, primarily femicide, in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez.

Brazil was the only BRIC country – an acronym representing Brazil, Russia, India and China, referring to economically burgeoning and promising countries – to have a woman president. Unfortunately, Dilma Rousseff was impeached in May due to charges of money laundering and corruption and was replaced by her Vice President, Michel Temer. This example of poor leadership dealt a blow to the women’s rights movement, who heralded Rousseff as the quintessential example of feminine leadership in a country who needed reparations, both politically and economically. Brazil has recently erupted in these protests after comments made by Temer in his own International Women’s Day speech: he praised women for their ability to compare supermarket prices, and went on to thank his wife, Marcela, and other Brazilian women, for everything they do “in the house, in the home and for their children”. The leader has also come under fire for abolishing the ministry of women, racial equality and human rights shortly after becoming coming to power and for appointing an all-male cabinet. Two of the 28 cabinet positions were then given to women after large protests. While Brazil is in its largest recession in recent history for the second consecutive year with a GDP drop of 3.3%, it is projected that Temer’s economic plan will disproportionately and negatively impact women.

Globally, 35% of women have experience physical and/or sexual violence in their life, according to the World Health Organization — and for 30% it was at the hands of their partner. This problem was exacerbated in Brazil, when in 2005 domestic violence was not considered a crime. The Maria de Penha Law passed in 2006  finally condemned domestic violence as crime. Nonetheless, today, a staggering 88.5% of women in Brazil have experienced violence; 15 women are murdered every day. In response, movements in South American countries, like that in Argentina – Ni Una Menos – have urged their governments to increase protection for the defense of women. Ni Una Menos calls for “a collective cry against machista violence,” and has spearheaded the effort of the Argentine Supreme Court to create a femicide registry. Organizations like Amnesty International and Vital Voices have joined local efforts in South America to educate young girls and to cultivate a culture of peace. Over 5,000 people have participated in their workshops, and some have even taken place outside of Brazil, furthering the case for women – not as victims but as fighters.

Research indicates that feminist mobilization in society is a catalyst for change, and not initiatives taken by governments (especially since these are largely nonexistent). What type of women’s movement is most conducive to policy changes? How large of a scale must they be in order to herald the attention of lawmakers? Although it is disheartening that governments cannot mediate this problem on their own, this research gives the women’s movement hope that the protests, assemblies and conventions do in fact serve to light the spark of changing times for females.