First we built her up, then we tore her down. For a quarter-century, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar sat alongside Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the exemplary moral figures of our age.
Praised and feted around the world and the recipient of nearly every prize and recognition that the international human-rights community has to offer, she was less a person than a chiselled-in-stone idol—a totem of democratic values and principled opposition to tyranny.
Now, at least in the eyes of the West, recent events in Myanmar have sent “The Lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is known to her admirers, toppling from her plinth.
Her dramatic fall has been prompted by the ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing that has been directed against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar’s west.
The Nobel laureate has come under attack for saying little, and doing less, to stem a military-directed campaign of arson and violence that has driven more than 400,000 people over the border into Bangladesh in little over a month.
As Myanmar’s army torched Rohingya communities, pundits, journalists, and human-rights activists called for the 72-year-old to be stripped of her Nobel Prize and other baubles of international recognition. Her portrait has been removed from the walls of Oxford University. A onetime democratic icon is now being described, accurately, as “an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape.”
The fervor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s detractors, however, says as much about us as it does about her. Indeed, the anger seems to stem less from her actions, or lack thereof, than from her stubborn refusal to play the redemptive role assigned to her by the international community.
As Gavin Jacobson wrote recently in The New Yorker, the tenor of the denunciations carries a distinct tone of personal betrayal, as if years of investments in Aung San Suu Kyi’s promise had culminated in the bankruptcy of a moral Ponzi scheme. Jacobson argued that Aung San Suu Kyi “has exposed the artlessness with which many in the West reduced a complex personality into a Rapunzel of the East.”
All of this, however, prompts the more fundamental question of why we built her up so much in the first place. Why did we—Western governments, the media, human-rights advocates—invest so much hope in a single, fallible individual?
On one level, it is easy to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s idolization. Her life story traces a romantic arc from the vales of Oxford, to the UN headquarters in New York, to her crumbling family home on the shores of Inya Lake in Yangon, where, like a character out of Gabriel García Márquez, she lived out more than 15 years of house arrest.
Revered by ordinary Burmese (though for very different reasons than overseas), Aung San Suu Kyi offered the perfect foil to the villainous Myanmar military, whose violent crackdown on the 1988 demonstrations left hundreds dead.
In the subsequent years, Aung San Suu Kyi’s life took on all the qualities of a moral fable: one in which the beautiful daughter of an assassinated national hero sacrifices her own freedom to save her country from tyranny.
Yet there was more to the fashioning of Myanmar’s heroine than a good story. On a deeper level, it also seemed to be an outgrowth of the conviction, embedded in the global human-rights movement and much of the Western media and policy-making elite, that the world is moving inexorably, if sometimes haltingly, in the direction of liberal values. It is perhaps no coincidence that Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, a year that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the wave of liberal triumphalism that followed.
This optimism was best articulated by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 article, “The End of History?,” claimed that the West’s Cold War victory marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Coincidence or not, Fukuyama’s mass-market Hegelianism had a loud echo in the fable that grew up around The Lady.
For Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi was no simple politician, but a world-historical figure who would sweep away the hated military junta and shepherd her people toward the promised land of liberal democracy and human rights. Over time, we raised Aung San Suu Kyi so high that she stood outside and above the political realities of her country.
The urge to manufacture political idols, like so much else, begins in good intentions: that is, a desire to provide recognition for those standing up against oppression and tyranny around the world. But the process always distorts. Take the case of Nelson Mandela.
While Mandela’s own global idolization helped draw attention the cruelty and racism of South African apartheid, it also had the effect of effacing the radical nature of his politics, and his willingness to use violent means to achieve political aims. In the transmutation from politician to saint, a complex and revolutionary figure was reduced to a simple signifier of moral righteousness—an emblem of political change, minus the politics.
In a similar vein, the beatification of Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged a dangerous simplification of her own country’s political realities.
Viewed through the lens of her personal story, Myanmar’s ethnic and political complexities were flattened into a dyadic struggle between a freedom-loving people and a coterie of evil generals, a view that recent events now show to have been reductively naive.
In truth, military rule was as much a symptom of Myanmar’s problems as their cause. From nearly the moment of its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the country has been in a state of near-constant civil war between the central government, dominated by the ethnic Burman majority, and a raft of minority peoples occupying outlying parts of the country.
Source: The Nation