Asia

Aung San Suu Kyi: From human rights heroine to alienated icon

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Media captionThe leader of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has given a wide ranging interview to the BBC's Fergal Keane

We met in the cavernous interior of the foreign affairs ministry where the old regime once plotted its campaigns against international sanctions and isolation.

On the walls are the portraits of past Burmese leaders, beginning with her father General Aung San, assassinated on the eve of independence in 1947, and continuing into the era of thuggish military rule, face after forgotten face for whom nobody had ever voted in a democratic election.

The new leader, elected with an overwhelming popular mandate, arrived surrounded by civil servants and guarded by police, fresh from meetings and with many more planned later in the day.

Her interview with me was the first this year and a rare encounter with the media.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been bruised by the criticism over her handling of the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Rakhine state. It is a long way from the days when reporters, myself included, made the journey to her home by the lake in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, to listen to her expound on the virtues of universal human rights.

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Image caption Fergal Keane first met Aung San Suu Kyi more than two decades ago

Back when I first met her in July 1995 she was a political prisoner a few days free, eager for news of the world and particularly South Africa, where I had just completed my assignment as the BBC correspondent covering the transition to democracy.

She had followed my reports on the BBC World Service and was keen to know how the African National Congress managed to achieve the end of apartheid. There was an innocent eagerness about her back then, a hunger for knowledge on everything ranging from microfinance to the latest news in poetry and literary fiction.

Then, as her popularity grew and the army became nervous, there was another long period of house arrest. The army continued with its repression. Thousands were rounded up during the peaceful, and abortive, protests by monks in 2007.

She was only finally released three years later and allowed to resume a full-time political career.

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Image caption "The Lady" was released from house arrest in 2010

The woman I meet this week in Nay Pyi Taw in 2017 is undoubtedly changed. The heroine of the human rights community is now alienated from many of her old international supporters.

She is wary of the media and disdainful of her international critics, far more the steely politician than the global icon feted from capital to capital when she was released seven years ago.

Our exchange on Rakhine was polite but robust. I told her that having covered many conflicts I thought that what I'd seen in Rakhine state amounted to ethnic cleansing. Did she worry that instead of being remembered as an icon of human rights it would be as the Nobel laureate who refused to confront ethnic cleansing in her own country? No.

She refuses to accept this definition, speaking instead of two communities divided and explaining her lack of public activism as not wishing to fan the flames of hatred through condemnation.

It is also clear that the sharp turn in western voices, from adulation to condemnation, irks her.

The more UN officials demand she does something, the less likely, it strikes me, that she will accede. There is a profound paradox here. I and other journalists in Asia remember the days when it was the military regime that denounced our reporting of human rights abuses and accused us of exaggeration.

Now these complaints are levelled by a democratically elected government led by a former political prisoner.

It is true that not all of the allegations that emerge from Rakhine state are true, and that the latest violence was sparked by militant attacks on the police. But the weight of evidence suggests an appalling toll on the lives of innocent people going back well before the recent appearance of a radical Rohingya groups.

One of the most powerful memories I have of ethnic intolerance - and this is after reporting on Rwanda and atrocities in the Balkans - is seeing the plight of Rohingya penned into a ghetto in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, and listening to the toxic rhetoric of Buddhist monks near a burned out Muslim village.

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Image caption The UN issued a damning report on the treatment of Rohingya in February

The crisis in Rakhine will cause Aung San Suu Kyi no problems among the majority of Burmese, who remain loyal supporters of her National League for Democracy. She has the support of the street even if her backing in ethnic minority areas is declining.

However the alienation felt by international supporters could become a problem if the military refuses to accede to her demand to change a constitution that gives them power over key ministries like defence and home affairs, and which prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president.

She is too shrewd a politician to be unaware of this risk. But conceding to international critics whose analysis she refuses to accept would be totally out of character.

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