Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi arrives on stage to pose for a group photo before the start of the ASEAN-Japan summit on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore on November 14, 2018. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)
Agence France-Presse

Diplomatic niceties have been in short supply for Aung San Suu Kyi at a summit in Singapore, where the one-time rights champion has been publicly chastised over her handling of the Rohingya crisis, compounding a dismal week for Myanmar’s de facto leader.

Suu Kyi has refused to speak up for the Rohingya, a stateless, persecuted Muslim minority driven by violence into Bangladesh in huge numbers.

Her reticence on the issue has cut her adrift from the global rights community including the United Nations, whose investigators say last year’s Myanmar army campaign amounted to genocide.

Many of the honours previously showered upon Suu Kyi for her stoic, peaceful resistance during years of house arrest by Myanmar’s junta have been rescinded.

This week the bad news got worse.

On Monday Amnesty International, whose campaign to free Suu Kyi galvanised global recognition of her democracy struggle, stripped her of its highest honour over her “indifference” to the atrocities against the Rohingya.

One day later at a regional summit in Singapore, criticism replaced the garlands she has received on the global stage since steering her party into government in 2016.

Suu Kyi was castigated by Malaysia’s premier Mahathir Mohamad at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet, a forum better known for platitudes than admonishments.

“Someone who has been detained before should know the sufferings and should not inflict it on the hapless,” the forthright Mahathir told reporters on Tuesday shortly before the summit opened.

“But it would seem that Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to defend what is indefensible,” he added, ploughing through the summit’s tradition of politeness.

Dialling up the awkwardness, Mahathir spent the entire summit next to Suu Kyi at photocalls, roundtables and dinners — thanks to the alphabetical proximity of Malaysia and Myanmar.

“You can sense (her reception) is not the same as before,” a Southeast Asia diplomat told AFP, requesting anonymity. “Everyone was expecting more from her.”

The diplomatic siege deepened on Wednesday when US Vice President Mike Pence told her the “violence and persecution” against the Rohingya was “without excuse”.

In reply Suu Kyi, who appeared wrong-footed by the directness of the public critique, retreated behind her usual position: the Rohingya crisis is an internal Myanmar affair.

“In a way, we can say we understand our country better than any other country does,” she said.

The Nobel Laureate insists impartial domestic probes will establish any evidence of army abuses.

But Rohingya refugees say Myanmar will never provide real justice.

Fallen star

Myanmar’s army has driven the Muslim minority out in waves and denies them citizenship and self-identification as “Rohingya”, instead labelling them “Bengalis” — illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

More than 720,000 Rohingya were forced to cross the border by a Myanmar army kickback against Rohingya militants last year.

They joined crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest and most populous countries.

The first families in an initial group of 2,000 were due to be repatriated on Thursday under a deal that has stalled due to fears the Rohingya will face persecution on their return.

But by the afternoon none had returned amid reports of intimidation and fear among the refugees, who do not want to go back without citizenship, security and property guarantees.

Suu Kyi’s defenders say her hands are tied by a power-sharing deal cut with the army that allowed civilian elections in 2015 but granted the military full control over all security matters.

A spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) defended the party leader against the mounting flak in Singapore.

“If their pressure (on Suu Kyi) is because of ‘Bengali’ repatriation… we have already agreed to accept all who have lived in Myanmar,” Myo Nyunt said.

Suu Kyi still draws widespread support inside Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

But from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson, she has shed friends in international circles over her intransigence on the Rohingya crisis.

And even gatherings in Asia — where discretion and non-interference in perceived ‘internal matters’ of another country is a shibboleth of diplomacy — no longer come with a guaranteed rock-star welcome.

“Her star has undoubtedly dimmed,” another ASEAN diplomat told AFP, also requesting anonymity. “Her reception is not as warm as… (when) she still had that aura.”

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