The Singapore Lecture is one of the highlights of intellectual life in Singapore each year, and the invitation to deliver it is as much an honor of recognition bestowed upon the speaker as it is a learning opportunity for the audience.
The problem for this year’s Singapore Lecture was the invited speaker, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 1st State Councillor of Myanmar, did not deserve such recognition, while her insights on her proposed topic, “Myanmar’s Democratic Transition: Challenges and the Way Forward”, were also highly dubious.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has been presiding over South-East Asia’s biggest humanitarian crisis over the past year. Almost the entire 1 million-strong Rohingya population in the north-western state of Arakan has been pushed over the border to Bangladesh by systematic clearing operations run by the Myanmar army since last August. Tactics used in the clearing operations have the systematic raising and burning of villages, systematic rape, the denial of the ethnic identity of the Rohingya by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, and a generalized campaign of dehumanization which her government aids and abets, and which is typical of genocide situations.
Meanwhile, in Burmese “democracy”, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Myanmar, currently Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, retains the absolute power to veto anything the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi does or proposes, all matters of Defense, Foreign Policy, internal Security and related issues are controlled directly by the leadership of the Armed Forces without any input or oversight from Ms Suu Kyi, the same military leadership continues to own and control most of the country’s economic and natural resources, and a quarter of parliamentarians are directly appointed by the military.
When Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the Singapore Lecture, the Nobel Laureate could have spoken to the international community against the abuses of the military, and to mobilize against their power on the basis of the genocidal violence they are perpetrating against the Rohingya and against many other borderland minorities, such as the Shan and Kachin, to name but two.
But we already knew how Aung San Suu Kyi would use this platform. As so many times before since she has come to power in Myanmar, she used the platform to deny the existence of the Rohingya, to deny that there is any excessive use of violence against them or the other borderland peoples, and to accuse the international community, humanitarian NGOs and the UN of spreading fake news and and engaging in some kind of conspiracy against Myanmar when they raise concerns.
Singapore is perhaps the world’s most diverse society. It is also among the most successful and peaceful in the world. We do not have anything to learn from Ms Suu Kyi on social harmony or human rights. And if we have anything to learn about democracy, we most certainly should not learn it from Myanmar.
The Singapore Lecture is a highly prestigious honor. This was the perfect opportunity to press Aung San Suu Kyi to answer for the humanitarian crises she is aiding and abetting in her sham democracy of a country. It has been a disservice to for it to be used as platform for someone who sold out the ideals of democracy for a whiff of power
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide” (Hurst & Oxford University Press)