John Kerry, the Rohingya and the new Iron Lady: The Nation columnist

US Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting in Naypyitaw on May 22.
US Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting in Naypyitaw on May 22.PHOTO: REUTERS

Tulsathit Taptim

The Nation/ Asia News Network

Sometimes it's simpler to remain politically persecuted, as Ms Aung San Suu Kyi must have learnt.

When under house arrest and banished from the corridors of power, she didn't have to declare her stance on the Rohingya. (Her opinion wouldn't have mattered much, anyway.)

Now, United States Secretary of State John Kerry (surprise, surprise) has knocked on her door sporting flowers, that big smile of his and an all-too-familiar plea: Don't forget human rights, honey.

Give me space, Ms Suu Kyi shot back. 

She has a point.

Democracy is complicated and American democracy even more so.

The US secretary of state has been roaming the world preaching the virtue of the popular mandate, but now that "what the majority wants" has prevailed in Myanmar, he is championing the rights of a minority.

His words were perfectly reasonable from an idealistic/political point of view, but Ms Suu Kyi was merely saying she wished things in her country were that simple. 

To begin with, her party won a landslide election in a country where the majority doesn't like the Rohingya that much.

The paradox is obvious.

In other words, "the people have spoken" and they surely must expect the National League for Democracy (NLD) to listen.

Which she did, more or less.

Muslim MPs have been conspicuous by their absence since the NLD swept to power. Ms Suu Kyi has said very little about the Rohingya, leaving the issue to human rights activists and editorial writers all over the world.

Once in a while the country's de facto leader, who knows a thing or two about political persecution, has appeared sympathetic to their plight - but not enough, in Mr Kerry's eyes.

He's lucky she hasn't thrown Mr Donald Trump in his face. "At least I'm not vowing to build a wall to keep theRohingya out," she could have said. 

Mr Kerry could have replied that Mr Trump was in fact running against his party's presidential candidate.

But then again, Ms Suu Kyi could have wondered out loud what would happen if Mr Trump won and sent a new secretary of state to Myanmar to demand tougher measures against Muslim immigrants.

What if American voters loved Mr Trump's stance on immigrants, refugees and Muslims? Shouldn't the voice of the people be respected? Better still, if Mr Trump became president should Myanmar seek US loans to build barricades against the Rohingya?

True democracy is tough, and my country's situation is complicated, Mr Kerry could have said. 

My point exactly, Ms Suu Kyi could have countered. 

This dialogue is imaginary, of course, but Ms Suu Kyi's "Give me some space" statement was real and spoke volumes.

She could just as well have said "Give me a break" - though that wouldn't have been quite so polite.

And in fact politeness ruled the day when Mr Kerry made his brief stop in Myanmar last month. Ms Suu Kyi called America a "helpful" friend and he tried his best to appear understanding.

Yet after acknowledging that theRohingya issue was "very sensitive" and "divisive", Mr Kerry said: "What's critical to focus on is solving the problem. What's critical to focus on is improving the situation on the ground to promote development, promote respect for human rights, and to benefit all of those who live in Rakhine and throughout Myanmar."

There was minor tension, though. Ms Suu Kyi had jaws dropping when she appeared to endorse a tactic popular among dictators.

You shouldn't call the Rohingya the Rohingya, she chided, because such a name is emotive and causes problems.

Me Kerry was diplomatic in his response but essentially said that the US could call the Rohingya whatever it deemed fit.

"I know it arouses strong passions here," he said. "At the same time, we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya."

He and Ms Suu Kyi also differed subtly over how much the United States has helped.

He apparently was of the opinion that his country is doing the best it can, but here's what she said: "While we are trying to find that solution, we would like our friends to be helpful in this. That is very difficult, I'm not denying that, and if our well-wishers are not ready to cooperate with us, it will make our task that much more difficult."

Even that apparently biting statement couldn't wipe the big smile off Mr Kerry's face. He didn't reply out loud, but here's my best guess of what was in his mind: Welcome to the real (our) world, baby.