Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingyas problem is guided by realpolitik in her race for presidency. In that she has no moralistic pretensions. By A.G. NOORANI
ON a recent visit to New Delhi, Myanmar’s heroic fighter for freedom, Aung San Suu Kyi, politely but sharply criticised India for its indifference to her plight, personally, as she fought heroically for the restoration of democracy and to the violations of human rights in her country for 15 long years.
Within a short time thereafter, Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine state in the west of her country were subjected, once again, to atrocities by Buddhists and security forces. Last year alone, at least 192 people were killed and 1,40,000 rendered homeless. An estimated 8,00,000 Rohingyas live in Rakhine state. Daw Suu, as she is affectionately called, was heavily criticised for not speaking up for their rights. Many of them remain in camps which they are not allowed to leave.
She would do well to note that none in New Delhi lost any sleep over those outrages either. New Delhi has a thick skin and a conscience as sensitive as a stone. This is par for the course. It is, however, the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s silence that is intriguing. It is so completely at variance with her reproach to India for not espousing the cause of freedom in her country.
On June 6, she spoke at a conference organised by the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Summit at Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. It was chaired by Nik Gowing of the BBC. What Suu Kyi said on the occasion should cause no surprise. It should, indeed, be welcomed. It explains her silence on the Rohingyas. She threw her hat in the ring for the contest for the presidency, a decision warmly to be welcomed. “I want to run for the President and I’m quite frank about it. If I pretended that I didn’t want to be President, I wouldn’t be honest.”
All she could permit herself to say on the Rohingyas on this occasion was that she was for “the rule of law”, that is, she is for virtue and against sin. To be fair, on May 27, Suu Kyi sharply criticised the district government’s policy to limit Rohingya families to two children. “This is against human rights.”
The presidential candidate faces a hard road ahead. The military still controls 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Major constitutional amendments required to enable her to contest need at least 76 per cent support. It has then to be followed by a referendum where again at least 50 per cent of the voters would have to support the moves. Nationals with a foreign spouse or children are barred from holding the top job. Later in the evening Suu Kyi told reporters, “I am told it’s the most difficult Constitution to amend… 25 per cent [MPs] are unelected military appointments. What we need is that all the civilian seats are filled and we have an agreement on the amendments. Then, we need at least one brave soldier who must support it. It’s very difficult, but not impossible.”
That depends entirely on her success in forging an understanding with the military rulers which facilitates a smooth transition to a democratic government. Her success hinges on a national consensus. The 67-year-old leader, who entered politics late in life and of sheer necessity, impelled by her deep commitment to freedom, has revealed remarkable maturity and political sophistication. She criticised, but never condemned the military leaders. Aware of the state of public opinion on the Rohingyas problem, she preferred circumspection to public censure. The stakes are enormous and she simply cannot afford to make any mistakes on the way.
In this Suu Kyi provides a glaring contrast to our hypocritical leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru practised realpolitik but covered it with moralistic pretensions. The backlash that followed in the 1990s was triggered by bogus “realists”, led by men ignorant of the very nature of foreign policy and an intelligent informed understanding of the role of morality in the conduct of foreign policy. It was led by an ambitious and none-too-informed Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, supported by a columnist who shifted his loyalties to a Foreign Minister as ambitious as Dixit, Jaswant Singh. The Bharatiya Janata Party acquired one more stick with which to demolish Nehru’s legacies to which its revivalism and ideology of hate were totally opposed.
Debasement of discourse on foreign affairs was reflected before and after the understanding which defused the Sino-Indian crisis on the Line of Actual Control (LoAC). Some top leaders proclaimed loudly that India had conceded nothing. What impression will China get of India’s readiness to settle the boundary dispute itself? Any settlement will necessarily be based on a compromise.
Nehru assured the Joint Session of the U.S. Congress on October 13, 1949, “Where freedom is menaced or justice threatened, or where aggression takes place, we cannot and shall not be neutral.” Nehru denounced the military coup in Pakistan in 1958 but was circumspect on the overthrow of his friend U Nu in Burma. Indira Gandhi claimed, on July 23, 1983, “I have raised my voice” regarding civil liberties and the rights of minorities in India and elsewhere. She had always spoken up. Her government’s statement in Parliament on August 25, 1983, expressed “uneasiness and distress [at] the recent happenings in Pakistan and the sufferings of people who have been demanding restoration of democracy in the country. As a nation we are committed to democracy.”
The crescendo was reached the next day when she spoke to her party MPs about the imprisonment of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, “the torture of begum Nusrat Bhutto”, and asserted “we have always condemned inhuman treatment meted out to people irrespective of whether such acts take place in our own nation or outside”.
She also declared, “We have to oppose injustice everywhere. We want that there should be democracy everywhere. And, by supporting the cause of democracy and opposing injustice, India is not doing anything improper or bad.”
But when the International League of Human Rights accused the Government of India, in a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General, of violation of human rights during the Emergency, India’s Permanent Mission at the U.N. was instructed to retort, on June 7, 1976, that “the protection of fundamental human rights is the concern of each sovereign state and is a matter which is essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of member-states of the United Nations”.
The reply bitterly complained that “this sort of gratuitous interference in India’s internal affairs is certainly not calculated to serve the best interests of the people of India, but rather to encourage the subversive elements to try once again to destroy the framework of constitutional democracy that the Government of India has been sustaining in a country with a formidable diversity of problems of scaring magnitude”.
India’s stand on Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan (1980), to cite a few, did not earn plaudits from the world. A more guarded approach has been adopted of late; not untinged by cynicism, though.
Daw Suu is not the first one to face the dilemmas which she does. Nor will she be the last. It is inherent in the human condition and the nature of the global order. The classic case is that of Charles de Gaulle, so well described by Jonathan Fenby in his superb work The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he Saved (Simon & Schuster).
On June 4, 1958, as Prime Minister, de Gaulle flew to Algiers, his Carevelle airliner accompanied by fighters flying in a Cross of Lorraine pattern. As he stepped from the plane, the waiting spectators cheered and wept with excitement. De Gaulle continued imperturbably on his way. Then the Prime Minister, in plain uniform without medals, raised his arms in his familiar V gesture and shouted, “Je vous ai compris!” The first three words were covered by the noise of the crowd but the fourth sounded loud and clear (I have understood you).
“The words were meaningless in themselves; there was no indication of what de Gaulle had ‘understood’. But the crowd interpreted them to mean that he was on its side; he had understood their cause and would back their struggle to retain control of Algeria. For them, he was truly their saviour on a white horse, and the rebellion of 13 May (1958) had succeeded, symbolised by the Public Safety Committee filing out on to the balcony when de Gaulle finished speaking to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ with him and those below. His words may also have saved his life; a fifty-year-old antiques dealer and former Petainist had positioned himself in a building opposite the balcony from which the General spoke, armed with a rifle with which he intended to kill the Prime Minister. But when he heard ‘I have understood you’, he took his finger off the trigger….
“The gulf between the cold, rational man of the north and the emotional settlers was evident from the start, even if his four key words submerged everything else. When the rebel Public Safety Committee asked to be recognised, he replied that he was in charge of Algerian affairs, and told Salan, as Delegate General to re-establish regular government authority (just as he had done with the Resistance in 1944). There was also a reminder of the FLN’s [National Liberation Front] ability to strike when its men attacked the police station in the city of Bone on 6 June.” On July 3, 1962, France recognised the new independent state of Algeria. Only a de Gaulle can accomplish such feats.
Lincoln and Stevenson
Hans Morganthau aptly described the difference between Abraham Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson. Both had a sensitive soul; both were avid for power. “Abraham Lincoln revealed his greatness only after he had reached the highest office. He made his way to that office as a politician competing with other politicians, seeking power in the manner of politicians, always tough and sometimes ruthless and devious. Lincoln made no bones about wanting power, and the people gave it to him. It was only after he had reached it that he also achieved an awareness of, and detachment from, it; and it is here that we found the key to his greatness.
“Stevenson showed his awareness of and detachment from power from the very outset. No doubt, he wanted power. When it eluded him in 1952, he said that he envied one man, the Governor of Illinois. When, as Ambassador to the United Nations and nominal member of the Cabinet, he had the trappings of power without its substance, he complained about the ‘disadvantage in being anywhere other than the seat of power’. He never forgave himself for his indecision in 1960. He wanted power, but he wanted it only with intellectual and moral reservations openly revealed. He wanted power, but not with that ‘canine appetite’, with that single-minded animal ferocity, which carried his competitions in the Democratic Party to success….
“What Lincoln and Stevenson have in common is a high degree of freedom from illusion, to which politicians—like all men—are prey, about themselves, about their actions, and about the world. What took the place of these illusions was a lucid awareness, both intellectual and moral, of the nature of the political act, of their involvement in it, and of the consequences of that involvement for themselves and for the world. That awareness gave them the intellectual distinction and moral sensitivity that set them apart from the common run of politicians. It gave their actions the appearance of indecisiveness and the reality of moral force. It accounts for their personal qualities of eloquence, wit, and sadness.
“Lincoln and Stevenson knew both the moral risks and the practical hazards inseparable from the political act. They knew that to act politically was to take a jump into the dark. Innocent people would suffer, and the outcome was uncertain. Moral absolution could not be bought with good intentions, nor could success be vouchsafed through ingenuity. The actor on the political stage takes his fate into his hands. Try as he may, he cannot escape the risks and hazards of his acts. If he is of the run of the mill, he will consult the flight of the birds, the constellation of the stars, or their modern equivalent, the public opinion polls, and receive the illusion of certainty that the facts of experience refuse him. If he is great in the manner of Lincoln and Stevenson, he cannot help but face the risks and hazards of his acts, to weigh them against the risks and hazards of alternative acts, to shudder at what he must do—and do it as though those risks and hazards did not exist. He acts in awareness of, and in spite of, these risks and hazards…. They are the qualities of souls that have been formed by their awareness of what the political act implies and by the burden of having to act nevertheless.”
In this they differed from men of power like Bismarck and Churchill who were immune to sadness and innocent of moral awareness. Lincoln and Stevenson knew that, when all is said and done, they were still faced, without remedy or escape, with the moral ambiguities and practical pitfalls of the political act. Knowing what they knew about themselves, their actions, and the world, they could not but be sad. “Their sadness denotes the resigned acceptance of the moral and intellectual imperfections of the political world and of their precarious place within it.”
The leader’s vision and times transcend the experience of his people. If he goes too far, he is overthrown; if he follows them he stagnates and betrays his calling. He has to prepare public opinion, while quietly negotiating a settlement. He must be a teacher as well as operator. That is leadership.
Morgenthau’s resolution of the dilemma is bold. “Not only must democratic foreign policy make concessions to public opinion, but it must also present its foreign policy in terms acceptable to public opinion. That is to say, it must make it appear as though it responds to the emotional preferences of public opinion to a greater extent than it actually does. It must cover those of its rational elements that are least likely to find favour with public opinion with a veil of emotional pronouncements which are intended to conceal its true nature from the public eye. It is for the objective observer to distinguish between public pronouncements on foreign policy that reveal and those that conceal the true nature of the foreign policy actually pursued, by correlating pronouncement with action.”
It was, however, left to a theologian and philosopher the Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr to point out that there are no easy solutions. The dilemma is an integral part of the human condition.
“Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises.”
This is a far, far cry from the notion of our “realists” about realpolitik. It does not expel morality but applies a realistic morality in an imperfect work.
One must wish Aung San Suu Kyi, a brave and noble fighter for freedom, all success. The dilemmas she has faced until now are nothing compared to the ones that will confront her when she becomes President and is called upon to fulfil her promises and live up to the expectations her heroism has aroused.