Suppose that Elie Wiesel had run for office, and been elected. Instead of providing a revered moral voice for human rights and Jewish rights, the Nobel Peace Prize winner would have wielded actual power and would have been considered directly answerable for any problems that developed under his watch — even if he might not have been singularly responsible for those results. Indeed, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum might even have taken away the Elie Wiesel Award it bestowed on him.
That’s what actually happened last week to Burmese civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, another Nobel Peace Prize winner and the second recipient of the museum’s celebrated Elie Wiesel Award. The museum gave the award to Suu Kyi in 2012, in recognition of her activities in opposition to hate and genocide and her work to advance the cause of human dignity.
But the museum seems to have soured on Suu Kyi and her apparent lack of continuing human rights advocacy. In a letter to her dated March 7, in which the 2012 award was “rescinded,” the museum wrote: “We had hoped that you — as someone we and many others have celebrated for your commitment to human dignity and universal human rights — would have done something to condemn and stop the military’s brutal campaign and to express solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population.”
The museum is not alone in its criticism. Suu Kyi has come under increasing fire for failing to speak out and to oppose the country’s military campaign against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar. According to news reports, the Myanmar military has killed thousands of Rohingya, burned their villages, buried the dead in mass graves and forced an approximate 700,000 to flee. The U.N. human rights chief has called the atrocities in Myanmar a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Before she ran for office, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for 15 years for opposing the country’s military dictatorship. She was internationally celebrated during that time as a pro-democracy icon. And then, in 2015, as part of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, she was elected state counselor, a position akin to prime minister.
Suu Kyi holds what appears to be a position of power in Myanmar, but the reality may be different than outward appearances. That’s because the military’s generals actually control the country. And they could easily turn back the clock to a time not so long ago when the military junta imposed martial law, killed protestors and jailed democracy activists like Suu Kyi.
Because of their actual power, the generals appear to be the proper address for registering protest of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya and other minority groups. Suu Kyi may not be living up to expectations as a human rights advocate, but, as people also often say about the Middle East, she’s living in a tough neighborhood.