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 chiseled-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 one-time 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 policymaking 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 naïve.
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.
After the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, seized power in 1962, military rule and ethnic conflict became mutually inflaming. The junta’s fierce repressions fueled the desire of minority peoples for self-determination, which, in turn, bolstered the Tatmadaw’s perennial claim that it—and it alone—could hold the country together. As the political scientist Mary Callahan has noted, praetorian rule was one answer—albeit a cruel and self-defeating one—to the centuries-old problems of state-building in outlying regions of Myanmar that had never been under effective central control.
The beatification of Aung San Suu Kyi was dangerous in another way, too. While it was effective in rallying international opposition to Myanmar’s ruling generals, it also gave the latter an easy route back to legitimacy. By 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi had so come to embody Myanmar in the eyes of Western policymakers that all the junta needed to do was to find a way to co-opt her—which is precisely what it did.
Beginning with Aung San Suu Kyi’s surprise release from house arrest on November 13, 2010, Myanmar’s opening to the world involved a conscious and canny leveraging of her global idol status. To start with, her release had the effect of legitimizing a deeply flawed national election that had been held just a week earlier, alchemizing the military “regime” into a quasi-civilian “government” stacked with ex-army men and led by a retired general, Thein Sein.
Later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, which took place via by-elections in April 2012, spurred the further rehabilitation of Myanmar’s international image. Western governments, euphoric at The Lady’s fairy-tale elevation, loosened and dropped sanctions; aid workers, journalists, and investors flooded into the country. There were concrete improvements at street level: Fear dissipated; people spoke openly about politics for the first time in years, and pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, once-banned, appeared everywhere. The 2015 election saw this excitement restaged at a national level, as the NLD surged to an overwhelming victory over the military’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
But this apparently happy ending masked the fact that in terms of who held effective power, little had changed. Taking office in April 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority was tightly restrained by a junta-drafted Constitution that preserved a special role for the military. It reserved a quarter of parliamentary seats for military-picked candidates, giving the army an effective veto over constitutional amendments, and granted the army control of the ministries of Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs. And just to be sure Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t slip her moorings, the military included a clause barring her from becoming president, by virtue of her past marriage to a foreigner (she currently serves as “state counselor”).
Aung San Suu Kyi’s global profile was crucial to this stage-managed process of reform. By luring her out of house arrest and into the halls of power, the Tatmadaw and its allies were able to shrug off Myanmar’s pariah status and secure the removal of Western sanctions, all while ceding little practical power. It was an act of audacious political sleight-of-hand—one enabled by the international community’s investment in a certain rosy narrative about Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi, more hard-headed than many of her admirers abroad, appears to have entered into this bargain with no illusions. Since her release in 2010, she has repeatedly stated that she views herself not as an icon but as a politician, one willing to make the pragmatic alliances and trade-offs necessary to achieve her goals. This was likely the reasoning, however flawed, behind her party’s controversial decision to not run any Muslim candidates at the 2015 election, out of fear that it would alienate the ethnic Burmans who make up the bulk of the NLD’s support.
It also explains Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence around the plight of the Rohingya, who are widely despised by the ethnic Burman population. As Rakhine state burns, the Nobel laureate remains fixated on revising the Constitution to give her party the full power that she believes it deserves, in the service of the broader goal that eluded the old junta: the forging of a peaceful and unified Myanmar. In these political calculations, the Rohingya figure as collateral damage, ignored or hated by nearly every domestic constituency in Myanmar, including many of the pro-democracy forces that fought the junta for so many years. If anything should give us pause, it is the specter of Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters standing side-by-side with the military that they once opposed, united in their view that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants with no place in Myanmar’s national community.
The backlash in the West against Aung San Suu Kyi reflects a disillusionment about her willingness to engage with the complex and contradictory political circumstances in which she finds herself—and, maybe, on some level, for the very process of politics itself. That is not to excuse her grievous mistakes. But her dramatic fall should remind us above all of the perils of political idolization and of enchanting ourselves into believing intractable problems can be magically overcome. The tale of The Lady suggests that it might be wiser if we resist making idols in the first place.