These screeching U-turns, rife as they are with contradictions, have left activists such as Thinzar Shunlei Yi frustrated. When we spoke recently, after she had spent the day attending demonstrations, she at times struggled to sum up her feelings. “For so long people were already aware of all these things, but they didn’t stand up,” she said, the clanging of pots and pans ringing out in the background as she spoke, part of a now nightly ritual to show displeasure with the new junta.
The feeling of oppression being experienced across Myanmar was, she said, what the country’s ethnic minorities had long been subjected to, something that was too often ignored in Yangon, the country’s largest city, and by its Bamar ethnic majority. They “were telling the world, telling the country, that the military wasn’t right, that people were being killed,” she said. Myanmar’s people, however, “didn’t care.”
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For decades, Myanmar’s myriad ethnic minorities, who speak their own languages and have distinct cultures, have been subjected to a multifront campaign of “Burmanization.” Part of this informal push involves attacks and abuses by the predominantly Bamar military, but other facets, while less violent, are also insidious: The demolishing of non-Burmese religious sites, the suppression of language and customs, are all aimed at stripping away non-Bamar identity. When Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took power in 2015, many in the country hoped she would bring reconciliation and provide a greater voice to ethnic minority groups. Instead, she alienated many, and kept others at a distance. A particularly contentious series of newly-built statues honoring her father, the late independence hero Aung San, infuriated ethnic groups, some of whom protested and were met with violence by police.
The military, meanwhile, continued its unabated record of horrific rights abuses. In 2017, it launched attacks in Rakhine State that sent hundreds of thousands of predominantly Rohingya Muslims fleeing across the border to neighboring Bangladesh. Suu Kyi stood by the military, going so far as to defend their actions at The Hague. While this appearance garnered the most attention, it was far from the only time she sang their praises. In April, she applauded the military as they rained artillery and bombs down on villages in the country’s west, killing and displacing citizens.
Suu Kyi commands a devotion that is more religious than political. In the Burmese language, she is described as having awe za, a word denoting a certain power and authority that commands respect and admiration, explains Kenneth Wong, a lecturer in Burmese language at UC Berkeley. Part of this is drawn, Wong told me, from her link to her father. She has often cast her support of the military as one based on his legacy as the founder of Myanmar’s army. Her defense of their actions was cheered domestically, where it was seen as a defense of the nation and only deepened a pervasive Myanmar-versus-the-world mindset.