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From International Darling of Democracy to Disgraced Pariah

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: Reuters

This year has witnessed few more dramatic falls from grace than that of Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese Nobel peace prize laureate began 2017 facing a growing hum of criticism over the plight of the Rohingya minority in the country where she is now de facto leader.

The year draws to a close with the UN's human rights chief saying she could potentially face genocide charges in future.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, told the UN Human Rights Council in November that the widespread and systematic nature of the persecution of the Rohingya by the army in Myanmar (also called Burma) meant that genocide could not be ruled out. He also said it constituted "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing".

In a recent interview, he talked of culpability of the country's leadership - both civilian in the case of Suu Kyi - and military.

"Given the scale of the military operation [against the Rohingya], clearly these would have to be decisions taken at a high enough level," Al Hussein told the BBC. "And then there's the crime of omission. That if it came to your knowledge that this was being committed, and you did nothing to stop it, then you could be culpable as well for that."

It was not so long ago that Suu Kyi was affectionately known as The Lady and internationally feted as a pro-democracy activist who sacrificed much for her cause. She was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1991 while under a house arrest that was to last for almost 15 years.

A Rohingya refugee woman holds her child after they crossed the Myanmar-Bangladesh border on Christmas Day. Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica

"Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, she opposed all use of violence and called on the military leaders to hand over power to a civilian government," her biography on the Nobel prize website read.

"The aim was to establish a democratic society in which the country's ethnic groups could co-operate in harmony."

The Rohingya - who are Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar - have long suffered discrimination by a government that refuses even to recognise them as citizens, subjecting them to restrictions on employment, healthcare, education and marriage. Hopes that Suu Kyi would bring an end to this repression when she was elected in 2015 were soon dashed. When the Myanmar military launched a crackdown against the Rohingya last year, claiming they were rooting out "terrorism", Suu Kyi remained silent. According to the UN, more than 600,000 Rohingya - around two-thirds of the entire Rohingya population - have been driven into refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh as the military campaign escalated this year, with reports this week of mass graves being found.

A Rohingya refugee woman holds her child after they crossed the Myanmar-Bangladesh border on Christmas Day. Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Last month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the "horrendous atrocities" taking place as ethnic cleansing, and said Washington would pursue targeted sanctions.

Suu Kyi's response to all of this has earned her the opprobrium of fellow Nobel laureates including Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai, and calls have increased for her to be stripped of her Nobel. In a recent statement, U2 - whose song 'Walk On' was inspired by Suu Kyi's story - said her silence regarding the horror visited upon the Rohingya was "starting to look a lot like assent".

The UN human rights chief Al Hussein told the BBC he had urged Suu Kyi to take action after his office published a report in February detailing atrocities that had taken place up to that point.

"I appealed to her to bring these military operations to an end," he said. "I appealed to her emotional standing… to do whatever she could to bring this to a close, and to my great regret it did not seem to happen."

Suu Kyi's defenders argue that in a country where the military remains the real power, her ability to stop the campaign against the Rohingya is limited.

But Al Hussein makes the same observation several others have made: that Suu Kyi tellingly refuses to even use the term "Rohingya" to refer to the persecuted. "To strip their name from them is dehumanising to the point where you begin to believe that anything is possible," he said.

The violence against the Rohingya is partly rooted in the emergence in recent years of an ultra-nationalist Buddhist movement in Myanmar which stirred anti-Muslim sentiment that sometimes spilled into mob attacks. The worst escalation of the military campaign - which had already resulted in hundreds of villages burned and thousands killed - came in August after militants attacked security forces. But the UN rights chief believes Myanmar's army was emboldened when it saw no international response to the operations against the Rohingya: "I suppose that they then drew a conclusion that they could continue without fear."

Whether that changes in 2018 remains to be seen.

(c) 2017 Irish Independent

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