Sometimes words can add fuel to the fire of a conflict; but then there are times when silence is like oxygen, feeding a conflagration that desperately needs to be extinguished. Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi needs to realize this, as she keeps herself aloof from the burning issues that wrack the country she hopes one day to lead.
The year just past has been a remarkable one for Suu Kyi, and for Burma. Sadly, however, it ended on a depressingly familiar note, with news of a worsening war in Kachin State, where Burma’s armed forces have stepped up their offensive with airstrikes on rebel targets that could jeopardize the lives of civilians, including some of the tens of thousands of refugees displaced by more than a year and a half of fighting.
And on Friday, there was a reminder of another humanitarian crisis that festers on the other side of Burma. According the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, around 13,000 boat people have fled communal strife that broke out in Arakan State last June, with at least 485 dying at sea in a desperate bid to escape violence and persecution.
Through all of this, Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate has maintained an unseemly silence, refraining from comment lest, as she said during a visit to the United States last September, she “add fire to any side of the conflict.”
This wholly inadequate response to some of Burma’s most pressing problems shows how far Suu Kyi, who will be 70 when the country next goes to the polls in 2015, has come from being the inspirational voice of her nation’s downtrodden masses. These days, it seems, she is content to wait for instructions from the government before stating the absolutely obvious: that the bloodshed must end, or the wounds of Burma’s past will never heal.
On Friday, Burma’s Independence Day, Suu Kyi said in a speech at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy that the country’s people need to rely on themselves if they want to realize their dream of a free and prosperous nation. “Don’t expect anyone to be your savior,” she warned.
Suu Kyi is right that Burma doesn’t need a savior; but it does need a leader. After a year of collecting international accolades, it’s time for her to prove that she is that leader.
As long as Suu Kyi continues to avoid taking any meaningful stance on the very real issues that plague Burma, the “democratically united” country that she spoke of in her speech will remain as elusive as ever. Without decisive words from the woman in whom the country has placed its hopes for a better future, Burma will remain, at best, a slightly less repressive version of the deeply divided tyranny it has been for most of its history as a modern nation.