Many people are shocked at the cruel silence of the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of the outrageous attacks on Rohinga muslims in her country. Almost half a million people have been driven from their homes and forced into the jungle and down on to the beaches where they cower in terror with their children and elderly, as the Burmese military continue to launch assaults and killing raids.

The intention is clear : to create a ethnically ‘pure’ State of Buddhists, ironically the religion of choice for Hollywood celebrities and tech trendies seeking new spiritual solace. Except this is the buddhism of helicopter gunships and landmines than ncense, chanting and cross-legged meditation.

Many people are shocked because Suu Kyi has been the beloved icon of human rights campaigners and was honoured all over the world for how she stood up to the military in her country, and suffered isolation and detention. Having won the popular vote in successive votes from 1990 on, Suu Kyi was denied power by a self-satisfied military and placed under house arrest.

Eloquent, elegant and highly photogenic, she spoke with a refined English accent – her husband was English and she had a colonial-type education – and lived in a wooden house, deep in the jungle, sticking fast to her Buddhist beliefs, which she shares with the majority population of this Asian country. Once a British colony, Burma has been renamed Myanmar.

One can see the appeal. In Dublin, I once attended a moving event about Myanmar attended by many celebrities including film director John Boorman, who made a film about Suu Kyi called ‘Beyond Rangoon’. Another film was a biopic called The Lady.

How could such an apparently dignified leader turn a blind eye when her country’s military uses the cloak of global anti muslim sentiment to expel Myanmar’s half million muslim minority. The test of a country’s normality, legality and humanity is the treatment of its minorities and on this Myanmar has miserably failed, as has Suu Kyi herself.

Excuses that she is only a figurehead and not in control of the military do not wash. If she is only a nominal leader, why is she there at all, and why does she not resign in poorest at this brutal act of ethnic cleansing ? Some accuse of her of staying silent to preserve her political status, in a country which ironically has become more toxic and deadly under democracy and a free press.

So her supporters are surprised. But I am not, and here’s why: from two compelling sources, I was long ago given a different perspective on Aung San Suu Kyi. One was on the floor of the United Nationals General Assembly where I was an Irish delegate and where I encountered great scepticism and even derision for the West’s infatuation with Suu Kyi.

Delegates from India and Pakistan, who rarely agree on anything (except cricket) were united in painting Suu Kyi as a remote figure, out of touch with reality and behaving like a monarch before very poor people. Her unwillingness to cooperate with the Burmese military, they said, only prolonged her country’s torment, and her own imprisonment.

The other source was a US business delegation I met in Dublin, hosted by a former US Ambassador. On a trip through Asia, they had met Suu Kyi and also found her imperious and cold, but also, more ominously, someone who expressed disdain about possible Western investment and ‘too hasty’ development of the primitive Burmese economy. These may have been unfair portraits of Suu Kyi but they were informed.


In the face of The Lady’s silence in the face of the Rohinga massacres, many celebrities like U2 have protested and this week, native son Bob Geldof publicly tried to hand back his Freedom of the City to Dublin city council because it won’t rescind the one they gave the Burmese leader some years ago.

The response of the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor – that Geldof has a British Knighthood and is thus endorsing the crimes of the British empire – was absolutely pathetic and misses the immediate and bigger point, which is that right now, tens of thousands of people, mainly women and children, are being driven from their homes and left to starve on the Burmese/Bangladeshi coast, depicted in harrowing scenes on reports on Sky news this week.

The Mayor’s response is blind to this suffering and focuses instead, in a selfish and pedantic way, on Sinn Fein’s ‘historic struggle with the Brits’. Pathetic. And described as such by Geldof.

The defence of allowing Suu Kyi to retain her Freedom of the City was equally irrelevant and wishy washy by one Labour Councillor, who said that she was honoured for her actions ‘before’ recent events. As if her damning silence and even effective collusion in recent atrocities didn’t negate that.

But Geldof’s gesture begs a bigger question : is is worth making these gestures, which is all they are really, when you are far from a bloody conflict and situation and cannot directly influence it?.

And I think it is. I have written in my diplomatic memoir about how the Irish focus on the East Timor struggle against Indonesian oppression meant a lot to the people there and helped put the Asian issue on the world map, all thanks to a few Irish individuals, led by Dublin bus driver Tom Hyland, who now lives on the island.

Likewise, the Bosnia situation in the 1990s which the Irish government did next to nothing on but which a few dedicated activists did much to highlight. Again, it was a gesture much appreciated by Bosnians.

In fact, I was partly involved myself here. At one stage, a few years ago, Serbia were due to receive accession status from the EU, but two countries, one of them Ireland, held out approval, until the Serbs arrested the notorious Serb killer Ratko Mladic. He was duly arrested and sent to the Hague court and Serbia moved to the next stage towards EU membership. And that was just from a few articles, meetings and canvassing of TDs.


So small gestures do matter. The Bosnia Serb community invited me and my kids to a party in their centre in Blanchardstown, celebrating Mladic’s arrest – many of them were from Srebrenica where Mladic had orchestrated the killing of up to 7000 muslims.

So small gestures mean something. And with Geldof, who is an international figure known for his humanitarian causes, it is so much more and gets world headlines. It sends a signal from a small country which, if it has anything that differentiates itself in terms of foreign policy and issues, at least stands up now and then for those who are being persecuted, for their beliefs or religion.

As the writer Mary Kenny tweeted, ‘Like him or loathe him, you have to admit that Bob Geldof is fearless. He speaks truth to power – sometimes shouts it, even. It is he who should be awarded with the Orwell prize.’