Fallen Idol? Aung San Suu Kyi & the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis
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Soon after Myanmar’s longtime democracy crusader and opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from a long house arrest and elected to the country’s parliament in 2012, intercommunal violence began to escalate in the western state of Rakhine between local Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Over the next five years, the long-persecuted Rohingya minority faced increasingly violent waves of attack, culminating in a humanitarian catastrophe in August and September of 2017 characterized by indiscriminate killing, mass rape, and the wholesale incineration of villages. To the shock of her many admirers around the world, Suu Kyi did nothing to try to prevent or stem the military-led attacks, nor did she condemn the military after-the-fact, instead accusing international monitors and fact-finders of spreading false reports. This case explores the evolution of anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar and details the escalation of intercommunal violence against the Rohingya between 2012 and 2017. It describes Suu Kyi’s reaction to the growing Rohingya crisis in these years, and ends with assorted theories about why a leader long revered as an icon for democracy, symbol of peaceful protest, and crusader for human rights—having finally become her country’s civilian head of state—would choose not to take a stand against the brutal campaign against the Rohingya.
Two other HKS cases explore earlier periods in Aung San Suu Kyi’s evolution as a leader. “Icon of Hope” A/B (1685.0, 1686.0) focuses on Suu Kyi’s transformation from an expatriate living a quiet life in Oxford, England to an opposition leader and icon for democracy and human rights. “Aung San Suu Kyi, Seizing the Moment: Soaring Hopes & Tough Constraints in Myanmar’s Unfolding Democracy” (1986.0), focuses on Suu Kyi’s swift and challenging evolution from human rights icon under house arrest to de facto prime minister in 2016.
Developed for a course in moral leadership, this case may be used to teach about how top officials may fail when faced with their greatest adaptive challenges. In this case, students may be asked to consider Suu Kyi’s approach in the light of adaptive leadership theory, which rejects the false certainty of easy answers in addressing intercommunal conflict in favor of embracing uncertainty, experimentation, and the risk of failure in the open-ended search for a more humane, enduring path forward.
- Case Author:
- Pamela Varley
- Faculty Lead:
- Christopher Robichaud
- Pages (incl. exhibits):