External Affairs

In Suu Kyi’s Silence, Evidence of Growing Absence of Moral Conscience in Politics

Politicians around the world must concretely acknowledge the life of those minorities who are excluded on a daily basis from our social lives and our modes of thinking.

In today’s world, is ethics no more relevant to politics? Credit: Reuters

In today’s world, is ethics no more relevant to politics? Credit: Reuters

When Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest in Myanmar, the Norwegian Nobel Committee described their choice as the recognition that “the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognising the oneness of humanity.” As for Suu Kyi, she added that the prize “had made [her] real once again; it had drawn [her] back into the wider human community,” because “to be forgotten is to die a little.”

It is ironical that 26 years later, the same Suu Kyi who asked the world not to forget her sufferings and that of other prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, is now turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in her own country. To make things worse, just few months ago, Suu Kyi, who is Myanmar’s state counsellor and de facto head, said that “ethnic cleansing was too strong a term” to describe what was happening to Muslims in the Rakhine region.

Not surprisingly, most of Suu Kyi’s supporters and admirers around the word today are perplexed by the absence of moral and principled leadership in her attitude toward the Rohingya crisis. Even the South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu joined the growing chorus of critical voices condemning Suu Kyi and urged her to intervene immediately in the crisis. “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence”, said Tutu in a recent statement, “the price is surely too steep.”

Following Tutu’s criticism, it would be perfectly legitimate to ask why some political symbols of righteousness and moral leadership, like Suu Kyi, decide to put their pasts behind them as soon as they are mixed with power politics. Does this mean that in today’s world, ethics is no more relevant to politics? Or should we arrive at the conclusion that there is no such thing as moral conscience in power politics?


Also read: Finding Hope for the Rohingya in Unexpected Places


The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka once wrote that “a life not willing to sacrifice itself to what makes it meaningful is not living.” Patočka argued that history began when persons started moving in the world in a distinctly human way, by living in truth. Vaclav Havel, the famous Czech playwright, dissident and later president of the Czech Republic, promoted the notion of “living in truth” in his famous essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless‘.

Havel analysed the essence of “living within the truth” while examining the various dimensions of what he called “the power of the powerless”. He affirmed:

“When I speak of living within truth, I naturally do not have in mind only products of conceptual thought, such as a protest or a letter written by a group of intellectuals. It can be any means by which a person or a group revolts against manipulation: anything from a letter by intellectuals to a workers’ strike, from a rock concert to a student demonstration, from refusing to vote in the farcical elections, to making an open speech at some official congress, or even a hunger strike, for instance.”

Interestingly, there is an ethical dimension to Havel’s political view that echoes Gandhi’s moral dimension of politics. Though not a religious person, one can find clearly and transparently in Havel’s writings concepts such as conscience and morality. Moreover, Havel’s call to a concept such as “conscience” in politics attributes a more ethical foundation to his civic humanism. That is why, in his famous essay on ‘Politics, Morality and Civility‘, Havel underlined:

“I am convinced that we will never build a democratic state built on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is – regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist – humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural.”

Let us be frank. What is absent today in the agenda of many politicians, like US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and maybe on another scale Suu Kyi, is simply the concept of politics with conscience. Politics with conscience is not the pure practice of morality, it is mostly the creation of a space that should be understood in terms of decency. It is simply a matter of serving “the otherness of others”. This is a conception of responsibility that certainly does not correspond to those who stand on the side of power, but it concretely acknowledges the life of those minorities that are excluded on a daily basis from our social lives and our modes of thinking. This genuine concern for the otherness of others reminds us of the inherent fragility of human existence and the frailty of the human political condition.

Rohingya refugees sit near a jetty after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Credit: Reuters

Rohingya refugees sit near a jetty after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Credit: Reuters

That leads on to the question of whether the Nobel Peace Prize has any effect on what happens to the otherness of others in the world. However, if there is only one criterion to the importance of the Nobel Peace Prize, it is undoubtedly the fact that it is given in recognition of those fighting for the freedom of others. After all, combining politics and ethics is not a naïve dream. Naturally, for those who understand politics as a heightened responsibility for the ethical state of society, subordinating politics to conscience is to understand and practice democracy in terms of decency. Naturally if that is the case, it is time for political leaders like Suu Kyi, who are faced with the increasing tragedies and miseries of others, to become aware of the fact that there is only one way to remain faithful to the democratic notion of politics: to be decent, just and to act in harmony with one’s conscience and one’s better self.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.
  • alok asthana

    This is what inevitably happens when saints get to power. Read Arundhati Roy’s ‘When the Saints go marching out’, describing the face of societies today, from where these icons emerged ( Martin Luther King, MK Gandhi and Nelson Mandela) – USA, India and S Africa. They have become worse than what they were before these saints took up the struggle. However, in Suu Kyi’s case, the reversal has happened in the times of the saint itself.
    In injustice, hoping to put your man on the chair never works. The right remedy is to constantly oppose who is in power and never let the king do his thing. Islands of resistance.