Congress losing faith in Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi
Members of both parties in Congress have had it with Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman once honored as a hero on Capitol Hill.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been silent as military rulers of her native Myanmar ravaged the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group on the country’s western border, in a brutal campaign the United Nations recently deemed genocide.
The atrocities have galvanized a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in both chambers who are scrambling for ways to pressure both the military junta and Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s elected civilian leader, to acknowledge the enormities and take corrective measures.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said he wants to revoke Suu Kyi’s Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor which was bestowed with much fanfare six years ago.
“For Aung San Suu Kyi to not speak out and to talk about a proportionate response to terrorism is a total abdication of any morality,” Khanna said. “We should revoke the congressional medal, and beyond that she should be investigated as part of the U.N.’s [war crimes] tribunal.”
But Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said it may effectively harm their cause and send “a really strong burn-your-bridge kind of message.”
“If our object here is to engage her, and to incentivize and encourage her to speak out, even though we understand the delicacy of the balance with the military, I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it,” he said.
While there is a growing appetite on Capitol Hill for concrete steps to press Suu Kyi to rediscover the voice of moral clarity that made her a celebrated human rights symbol, many are out of patience.
“Her leadership is unacceptable — she’s turned a deaf ear — and who the hell is she kidding?” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “She came in like the Blessed Mary and she’s wound up like Jezebel.”
To make their case, bipartisan coalitions in both chambers have sent a flurry of letters to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging tougher sanctions on the repressive Burmese government.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus, is pressing the administration to endorse the recent recommendation — proposed by a team of U.N. human rights investigators — to try the alleged crimes before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Others want more aid to help the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees pushed into makeshift camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
“We’ve been trying to shout this from the rooftops for a long time now, to get the world’s attention,” said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who’s advocated for human rights in Myanmar for years.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon in his own right, said Congress, at the very least, should pass a resolution denouncing the Rohingya purge — and Suu Kyi’s silence in its wake.
“She should be criticized. There’s not any room for that type of violence and the killing of citizens,” Lewis said. “As a country and as a government, we’re too quiet.
“We should send a warning to her, and the people in power there.”
One notable exception to the condemnations is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime champion of human rights in Myanmar and a close friend to Suu Kyi.
McConnell rushed to her defense in recent weeks. Suu Kyi, he argues, simply lacks the power to rein in the violence in a country where the military elite still yield outsized authority over public policy — and could potentially knock her from power.
“No one doubts that atrocities were committed against the Rohingyas,” McConnell said late last month. “The question is, ‘Is it responsible to hold her responsible for something she cannot control?’ And so, I’ve been reluctant to, sort of, join the pile-on that seeks to blame her for things that she couldn’t possibly have had any impact on.”
Numerous aides and lawmakers said McConnell is also primarily responsible for sinking congressional efforts to slap new sanctions on Burma. Earlier in the year, the House passed such sanctions as part of its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — sanctions championed by GOP leaders. The Senate’s NDAA, however, excluded the provision.
“Basically, McConnell is just the firewall,” said a Senate Democratic aide familiar with the debate. “He sees these sanctions as negatively impacting Aung San Suu Kyi and he wants to protect her from that.”
The office of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was quick to point out that the House has already passed the new sanctions. Asked if there is any plan to bring the sanctions bill to the floor on its own, a Ryan spokesperson did not respond. And supporters of that standalone effort aren’t holding their breath.
“I don’t know if they’re going to put their attention on that when they know that McConnell’s position on this issue is basically to bury it,” said a House Democratic aide heavily involved in the issue.
The critics are quick to acknowledge the difficulties facing Suu Kyi, who’s straddling efforts to manage a civilian government and steer the country toward a more robust democracy without inciting a revolt from the same military regime that kept her under house arrest for almost two decades. But that is no excuse, they say, for her reticent response to the Rohingya crisis.
“At some point the moral outrage of what has taken place takes precedent over everything else,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who is also close to Suu Kyi and sponsored the 2008 resolution granting her the Congressional Gold Medal.
The new report from the United Nations has only fueled the flames. Released late last month, it found evidence of mass killings, gang rapes and other human rights crimes targeting the largely Muslim Rohingya — “violations [that] undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” the report reads.
The investigators emphasized that there’s no indicaton Suu Kyi’s civilian government participated in the Rohingya purge. But nor is there evidence she tried to stop it.
“Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population,” the report reads.
For many on Capitol Hill, the report was the final nail in the coffin of Suu Kyi’s reputation.
“She was cheered as a champion of human rights, and she’s turned out to be an incredible disappointment. And her silence on this makes her complicit,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a co-chairman of the Lantos Human Rights Commission.
“If I knew then what I know now, there’s no way I would have voted to give her a Congressional Medal.”