Once a symbol of democracy, resiliency, and elegance, Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen from her position as Myanmar’s golden girl to a political pariah after the country’s military attempted to ethnically cleanse the Rakhine State of the Muslim Rohingya people. Largely silent in the aftermath, Suu Kyi has been met with international condemnation and calls to revoke her many global honors.
— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) September 9, 2017
Born to General Aung San, the founder-turned-martyr of modern Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to be destined to follow her father’s footsteps as an icon of freedom. The bloody 8888 Uprising of 1988 brought Aung San Suu Kyi into the spotlight as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the current ruling party, and a vessel of hope for the repressed Myanmar population.
It would be another 25 years until Suu Kyi’s party would come to power, most of which Suu Kyi spent under house arrest. Decades later, as an international embodiment of goodwill and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi was officially recognized as the “State Counsellor” and assumed ruler of the country by proxy.
Since then, her international reputation has been tainted by her failure to condemn the persecution of the Rohingya and suppression of the media. Although Suu Kyi’s silence is an unacceptable reaction from a state leader, how much of her international persona was manufactured by the media?
In other words, did Aung San Suu Kyi truly show promise as a democratic leader or did the international community and subjugated population project this façade onto Suu Kyi in the hopes that she would transform into their long-awaited liberator?
Unresponsiveness to Rohingya Crisis
Standing beside the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and most recently Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi wields a fictional moral authority that makes her unresponsiveness to the Rohingya crisis ostensibly sinful. Internationals are outraged that such an excellent example of virtuousness could fall so far.
But how much of Suu Kyi’s goodness was perceived and how much was real? Cultural norms in Myanmar hold women to a higher standard of morality, but Suu Kyi’s exaltation arguably places her as a saint-like figure without fault. Even other female members of the Myanmar Parliament note her distinct “otherness” when it comes to propriety, wisdom, and selflessness saying, “Her will is different from others. She is decisive and willing to sacrifice. She strives for what she wants.”
An intersection of her patrimonial lineage, embodiment of femininity, and supposed political prowess have set her above the rest, an untouchable paragon. Her deviance from this frontage makes her silence all the more sickening to the international leaders, who were bent on Aung San Suu Kyi living up to her elevated morality.
Referred to by many as “Mother Suu,” Suu Kyi has been given unrealistic expectations, straddling the line between heroine and demonized leader, in which she was bound to falter. The world has heaped years of pressure onto Suu Kyi by minimizing the complexity of Myanmar into “the Lady versus the Military,” assuming that her mere feminine presence and heroic lineage would thwart the militarism that has been present in the country for decades.
The West, especially the United States, has a tendency to venerate specific individuals as rescuers, holding them in the highest regard and placing the weight of liberation on their shoulders.
However, much of the time these prized human remedies collapse under the pressures of complex instability and pitfalls of politics, as evident in the cases of Paul Kagame in Rwanda or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. In the words of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan:
“We created a saint and the saint has become a politician, and we don’t like that.”
In reality, the politician that is Aung San Suu Kyi retains very little power in the quasi-democratic state, which still vests most of its power in the military. With over 130 recognized ethnic groups, Suu Kyi inherited a state that lacks cohesion and a position that acts much more as a figurehead than a legitimate authority.
Codified into the Myanmar Constitution, the military has total control of major ministries and unelected seats with no checks and balances on its power. Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself trapped between her status and the inability to accomplish sizable change.
Suu Kyi’s silence, though morally egregious, is arguably the manifestation of the grievous situation in which she rests. Aung San Suu Kyi herself said it best:
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Rather than bombarding Aung San Suu Kyi with criticism and abhorrence, culminating in the stripping her of symbolic honors, the international community should strive to bolster their champion of change, who remains powerless against a militarized state.
If the global North is truly committed to democratic transformation in Myanmar, it must support Suu Kyi in clearing the massive hurdles placed by the deeply entrenched militarism in the country, rather than watching on as the leader flounders against decades of aggressive policies.
The difference between war and peace in Myanmar may be found between the sensationalism surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi and pragmatic resources from the West.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.