Aung San Suu Kyi was once a global hero. Today, her reputation is sullied. What happened?
She won a Nobel Peace Prize for her defiance of Myanmar’s military junta. She emerged from years of house arrest in 2010 a near-mythical figure, admired for her strength and integrity. She was swept into power in a landslide 2015 election that many around the world hoped would bring greater freedom and stability to her country.
Three years later, Aung San Suu Kyi is isolated and besieged by critics. The United Nations accuses Myanmar’s military of a “genocidal” campaign against Rohingya Muslims, and says Suu Kyi and her government did nothing to prevent it. She is no longer hailed as a moral icon, but condemned for forsaking the oppressed.
How did one of the world’s most admired leaders reach this pass? Reuters spoke to friends, advisers, diplomats and other long-time observers of Suu Kyi. They describe a politician who is principled and devoted but also flawed and alone, burdened with limited powers and impossible expectations.
Some say she hasn’t been sympathetic to ethnic minorities and was slow to grasp the scale and brutality of the military’s campaign against the Rohingya. Others say she has been scapegoated for the military’s crimes, then rejected by the international community when she needed it most.
Suu Kyi did not respond to questions sent to her spokesman.
“What is it that makes people hate?” Suu Kyi asked Ann Pasternak Slater, an old friend, when they met in November 2017. At the time, Pasternak Slater said, she had assumed Suu Kyi was referring to the violence against the Rohingya.
“But actually,” said Pasternak Slater, “it occurred to me long after that she was thinking about herself: ‘Why has everybody turned against me?'”
In this visual history, Reuters traces the journey of Suu Kyi and her troubled nation.
Born to Lead (1945-1989)
She is born in 1945, the daughter of General Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero and the founder of its modern military.
He is assassinated when she is two years old. She studies at Oxford University, where she meets her future husband, the British scholar Michael Aris. They have two sons.
She returns to Myanmar to care for her dying mother in 1988 and gets swept up in nationwide protests against decades of military rule.
“I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on,” she tells a vast crowd at Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda.
“People were longing for somebody who resembled General Aung San,” recalls Khin Ohmar, a veteran activist who was a 19-year-old student during the 1988 protests. “I was inspired, full of hope.” But the military crushes the protests, killing thousands, and puts Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989.
Hounded by the Junta (1989-2003)
Detained in her lakeside home in Yangon and allowed few visitors, Suu Kyi gains fame and influence. She wins a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 which, with her essays and letters, raises her status alongside icons such as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
In the United Kingdom, her husband is diagnosed with cancer. She chooses not to leave Myanmar to see him in case the junta blocks her return. He dies in 1999.
For her compatriots, such as these protesters in Bangkok in 1999, Suu Kyi is the best hope for an end to Myanmar’s dictatorship. But her battle with the military is one-sided. She is detained again in 2000, this time for 19 months. Then she is released and, in 2003, attacked by pro-junta thugs who kill several of her supporters. Afterwards, she is placed under her last and longest spell of house arrest.
Charles Petrie, then the most senior UN official in Myanmar, visited her in detention in 2003. Years of gruelling seclusion “helped define her sense of sacrifice and commitment” but also gave her a false sense of infallibility, he says. “It can explain the unwavering positions she is able to hold against all odds.”
Military Maneuvers (2004-2010)
Suu Kyi’s dilapidated home is again her prison. Until its roof is repaired in 2010, she writes, the monsoon months are spent moving “bowls, basins and buckets around my bedroom like pieces in an intricate game of chess, trying to catch the leaks.” She also reads, meditates and plays the piano. The US Embassy says she requests, via her doctor, an IT dictionary “to become more familiar with recent information technology.”
A dramatic rise in fuel prices in 2007 triggers anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks – the so-called “Saffron Revolution.”
Flanked by riot police, Suu Kyi briefly greets the monks at the gates of her home – the first public sighting of her since 2003. This energizes the demonstrations, which the military soon quashes.
Suu Kyi dislikes street protests, says Pasternak Slater, a friend since her Oxford days: “It’s not the way she thinks that one can achieve a lasting and peaceful development. It’s too dangerous.”
Veteran activist Khin Ohmar says Suu Kyi was always aloof from the grassroots protests she inspired. “She did not lead the mass movement in 1988. It was the students who organized.”
In 2008, the military junta holds a sham referendum to ratify a constitution drafted to guarantee it sweeping powers.
In 2010, it holds a general election, which Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotts because it says the laws governing the poll are “unjust.” A party created by the military wins by a landslide.
The military then installs a quasi-civilian government led by a former general, Thein Sein. A few days later, Suu Kyi is released to global jubilation. But the political architecture to constrain her is now in place.
From Prison to Parliament (2010-2012)
Suu Kyi addresses supporters outside her gate on the day of her release in November 2010.
The hopes of a nation – and the world – now rest upon a slight, seemingly indomitable figure with a fresh flower in her hair. In August 2011, Suu Kyi meets president Thein Sein for the first time, marking the start of her pragmatic engagement with a government of ex-soldiers.
Hillary Clinton arrives in Myanmar in November 2011, the first visit by a US secretary of state for over 50 years. The two women hug during a press conference at Suu Kyi’s home.
It’s the beginning of the end of Myanmar’s isolation; most Western sanctions are scrapped in 2012. President Thein Sein lifts censorship, frees hundreds of political prisoners and launches a series of reforms.
Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister and foreign minister, met Suu Kyi in Yangon in 2011. She and her entourage arrived in “two beaten-up Toyotas with what passed for her personal security detail,” says Rudd. “She didn’t have a lot of time for small talk because the issues she was dealing with were so great.”
Suu Kyi decides to contest by-elections in April 2012, despite fears that her participation will legitimize a political system skewed in the military’s favour. Huge crowds greet her nationwide campaign.
Her NLD party wins 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contests, and Suu Kyi becomes MP for Kawhmu, a small town near Yangon. Amnesty International calls Suu Kyi a “human rights superstar.”
In May 2012, Suu Kyi takes her place in Myanmar’s parliament in the capital, Naypyitaw, watched by unelected soldier-MPs in uniform.
The constitution grants the military a quarter of parliamentary seats, plus control over key ministries that oversee the army and police. Kevin Rudd says Suu Kyi hoped to change this rigged system from within. “Her resolve was to throw everything at it and see how much she could extract,” he says.
The Halo Slips (2012-2015)
In early June 2012, clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State kill at least 80 people. Thousands of homes are burned down.
For years, the Rohingya have endured apartheid-like conditions in western Myanmar, with limited access to health, education and other basic services. By 2012, the United Nations estimates about 265,000 Rohingya are sheltering in neighbouring Bangladesh, driven there by violence and poverty in Myanmar.
On 13 June, with parts of the Rakhine state capital Sittwe still smouldering, Suu Kyi departs on a five-nation tour of Europe. In London, she meets David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister.
In Norway, a journalist asks her: “Are the Rohingya citizens of your country or are they not?” She replies: “I do not know.”
The Rohingya bear the brunt of a second, deadlier bout of violence in Rakhine State in October, but Suu Kyi refuses to speak up for them. “Now, if I were to take sides in the situation … it would create more animosity between the two communities,” she tells the BBC in an interview aired in January 2013. “Violence has been committed by both sides.” Many of her supporters abroad wonder why a voice of moral clarity has faded.
Her halo also slips at a copper mine in northern Myanmar, where she is confronted by weeping and angry protesters.
They want the mine closed for environmental and other reasons, but a government inquiry, led by Suu Kyi, says it should be kept open to encourage foreign investment.
An extremist Buddhist monk called Wirathu fans anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide.
Religious violence spreads far beyond Rakhine State. Buddhist mobs kill dozens of Muslims in Meiktila, in central Myanmar, in March 2013. More riots, killings and arson attacks follow in nearby towns.
Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, is again criticized for not publicly defending Muslims. “She is a woman of absolutely scrupulous moral standards,” says her old friend, Pasternak Slater. “She is not going to make public statements simply because she’s been pressured by journalists.”
But Suu Kyi’s silence “broke my heart,” says activist Khin Ohmar. “Her moral authority is what people follow,” she says. “That’s where her real power lies. She has forgotten it or lost it.”
Her silence on the plight of the Rohingya and other minorities allows her to preserve her political popularity with the Buddhist majority.
In November 2015, the NLD wins a general election by a landslide thanks to what Rudd calls “the galvanizing figure and force of Aung San Suu Kyi.” She assumes power in the specially created role of state counsellor amid renewed hopes that her government will fix Myanmar’s troubled democratic transition.
On 25 August 2017, Rohingya militants launch attacks across northern Rakhine State. This triggers a military-led campaign of murder, rape and arson that drives more than 700,000 Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh. The refugees flee on foot and by rickety boats. Some, like this Rohingya baby cradled by his distraught mother, die after their boats capsize.
Min Aung Hlaing is the diminutive commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military and the public face of the brutal crackdown against the Rohingya, who he calls “Bengalis.” At the height of the operations, on 1 September, he says: “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job.” He and Suu Kyi live and work within miles of each other in Naypyitaw, where this photo was taken, yet they seldom meet.
Multiple investigations into the Rakhine crackdown blame the military for massacres, gang rapes and the systematic torching of hundreds of villages, including the Rohingya homes pictured here.
The military denies committing abuses, saying it mounted legitimate counter-insurgency operations against Rohingya militants. Senior members of Suu Kyi’s government concur. Thaung Tun, Myanmar’s national security advisor and a Suu Kyi appointee, tells the UN Security Council that reports of atrocities are “malicious and unsubstantiated chatter.”
On 19 September 2017, Suu Kyi addresses the Rakhine crisis in a speech in Naypyitaw that seems disconnected from events.
She says, for example, that military operations are over, even as Rohingya flee and villages burn across northern Rakhine State.
“Most world leaders have a team of advisers and confidants to provide fact-based perspectives, and she hasn’t had that for many years,” says activist Debbie Stothard, who visited Suu Kyi during her time under house arrest. “Tragically, she is surrounded by leftovers of the military regime that attacked her when she was a dissident.”
Pasternak Slater says Suu Kyi still remains “incredulous of the extent of the violence” two months later, in November 2017, when the two women meet at Suu Kyi’s home in Naypyitaw.
Myanmar is a mosaic of ethnic minorities, but it is dominated by the Bamar, a mostly Buddhist people. Suu Kyi is Bamar, but many ethnic leaders hope she will use her authority to end decades of war between government troops and ethnic armed groups fighting for greater autonomy.
But trust in Suu Kyi among minorities evaporates as the military launches offensives that drive thousands of people, most of them Kachin, from their homes.
Some ethnic leaders say Suu Kyi prioritizes her relationship with the military. Adds Derek Mitchell, a former US ambassador to Myanmar who first met Suu Kyi in 1995: “She has rarely expressed much sympathy, publicly or privately, for ethnic grievances.”
Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s party, notes her efforts to bring warring ethnic groups together. “It’s not true that she doesn’t care about ethnic people,” he says.
In October 2018, three journalists from Eleven Media, Myanmar’s largest private newspaper, are arrested for an article criticizing the Yangon regional government. They include Nayi Min, an editor, pictured arriving at court:
The charges are later dropped after President Win Myint intervenes. The case underscores what critics say is deteriorating press freedom under Suu Kyi, once a champion of free speech. Athan, a Yangon-based free speech group, says 44 journalists have been arrested since the NLD took power. They include two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, sentenced to seven years after exposing a military-led massacre of 10 Rohingya men.
The arrests further alienate former supporters. Charles Petrie, the former UN official, blames Suu Kyi for not giving the country “moral direction.” But he also blames the international community for not helping Suu Kyi enough, because it was “basically sycophantic and too wedded to the fairytale it had constructed of her.”
Popular but Alone
Suu Kyi’s status as a human rights hero lies in tatters in the West. In Myanmar, Sean Turnell, her economic adviser, says she retains a “quasi-mystical charisma.” But Win Htein, a former senior adviser, paints a lonely picture of the woman he still regards as Myanmar’s “only hope.” At home in Naypyitaw, he says, she works alongside her dog, a gift from her younger son, Kim Aris. “It’s her only outlet,” says Win Htein.
Rudd sees this isolation as a prelude to Suu Kyi, now 73, one day standing down as Myanmar’s leader. “What we see is someone who is withdrawing into their own castle,” he says. “I’m not sure how much longer she’ll choose to remain as effective head of government.”