The Silence of a Laureate

When I was growing up in Bangladesh, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi amazed me. Burma is right next door to us geographically, but as a little girl all I understood about the military junta there was primarily through pictures.

I just could not wrap my head around what kind of threat a tiny woman--with her iconic bright and colorful flowers carefully tucked behind her ear--posed to these big men with guns. Clearly the military's worries went beyond what Suu Kyi represented to them physically. This woman personified the heart and the spirit of the long winding road that Burma has tread to democracy.

In my adult years, Suu Kyi's imprisonment lasted well over a decade. Forced to be a prisoner in her own home, Suu Kyi is known worldwide as a champion for the core principles of democracy. Nobody embodied the fight for a people to choose their government the way she did. And it is clear that "The Lady" is not done fighting after her much awaited release in 2010, declaring recently her willingness to run for Burma's presidency: "... As a political party leader, I also have to have the courage to be president."

Suu Kyi went on to state that her political party would work to remove an existing clause in the Burmese constitution barring her from the presidency. Her words signal a new era in a country that is still waking up from the tight grip of five decades of military rule.

Could anything be more politically dramatic than watching her take the place of the very regime that placed her under arrest, separated her from her family and barred her from taking office even after winning landslide elections? She is arguably one of the most romanticized political figures of modern times.

However, it is what Suu Kyi is not saying that may be the most telling of the kind of leader she would be. In reality, how will "The Lady" rule? Burma's ethnic minorities may hold some clues.

This summer, ongoing tension between Burma's Muslim population, the Rohingyas, who are denied citizenship and legal rights by the government, reached new heights as social media helped propel the issue to global attention.

Religious and ethnic violence displaced almost 80,000 people from their homes beginning in June, and to make matters worse, neighboring Bangladesh has closed off entry of Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Burma.

Burma's president suggested that the Muslim minority should be physically moved out of the country, while the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, declared that Bangladesh cannot help the Rohingyas. Bangladesh has even shut off foreign NGOs from being able to assist the thousands of people trapped between two countries, in desperate need of food and medical services.

But it is Suu Kyi's silence on this issue that is particularly deafening. How can a woman the world has watched fight for her people against the might of a military junta for decades not have a word to say when an entire section of her country's population is being violently attacked? It is shocking to say the least. It also makes us ponder what kind of leader Suu Kyi will be.

Why is the world being silent about Suu Kyi's silence? This is where the politics gets personal and begins to implicate all of us. When I first mentioned that I wanted to write about how Suu Kyi has failed the Rohingyas, many people were shocked that I would "attack" a woman the world holds so dear. No one wants to hear anything bad about Suu Kyi. We clearly have idolized this woman to the point of no return. We want to believe that the fight she waged for a "free" Burma includes the Rohingya people as well.

The lesson is that, when it comes to women in positions of power, we still tend to genderize them. We do not want anything to taint the perfect portrait of grace and political sacrifice we have painted in our hearts and minds of Aung San Suu Kyi. We imagined and worshiped her as a maternal political warrior, and that is how we want her to remain. Even if this can be a considered a positive stereotype, it still is a stereotype.

But as both the Bangladeshi and Burmese governments abdicate responsibility, remaining silent about the war on Rohingyas is a moral failure--and who more could facilitate a solution to the crisis than Suu Kyi?

We have waited decades to see Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi ascend toward what we all believed was her rightful political throne.

Where lies her political destiny? The Rohingyas now hold the key.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.