To many in the West, Aung San Suu Kyi has suffered a terrible reverse. But look closer and the Suu Kyi that fit our superhero narrative was exactly that: fiction.
It is not just that she confused us. It goes much further than that. We feel betrayed as well: we had faith in her, believed she was different. We organised protests when she was under house arrest, we signed petitions. And now Aung San Suu Kyi is behaving like any old dictator. She has created a special role for herself, that of State Counselor, one step above the President and “in practice that seems to mean ‘above’ public scrutiny”, as a BBC journalist wrote. She never gives interviews to her own media and only rarely to outsiders.
Instead she relies on propaganda, which means lies, especially about the “crimes against humanity” that are being perpetrated in her name, or with her knowledge, or at least without her doing something to stop them. The victims are the Rohingya, who are at the receiving end of mass killings, gang rapes and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military. Her military. And all she says is that “military matters are to be left to the army”. We don’t understand: how did Aung San Suu Kyi go from political prisoner, heroine of human rights, Nobel laureate, recipient of the Order of Australia and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, to this?
Let’s look at some comparable cases, randomly picked from the vast array of possibilities in recent history. Benazir Bhutto, a contemporary of Myanmar’s ruler from a country a few borders away: Pakistan. Like Aung San Suu Kyi, Bhutto was the daughter of a former head of state, who was assassinated, like the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Both women then became the leaders of their father’s political parties, which both of them paid for with long stretches of house arrest and imprisonment. Aung San Suu Kyi was held in her home from 1989 to 2010; Bhutto for six years, from 1978 to 1984, in solitary confinement in a desert cell, while, as she writes in Daughter of destiny (1989), “every so often, a bottle of poison would appear”. In 1985, one of her brothers died, poisoned by agents of her enemy, Zia ul Haq. That same year, Bhutto gave a speech to the European Parliament, speaking out against Zia’s human rights violations. In reply, he killed about a hundred members of Bhutto’s party. In Myanmar, meanwhile, Aug San Suu Kyi’s husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was in a hospital in the US, while his wife was under house arrest a world away. Despite the Pope and half the international politicians trying to intervene, the two never saw each other again.
It is easy to use the term “democracy” or advocate “civil rights” and “freedom” from a prison cell. Once you become the leader of a country, however, that means the risk of making the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely” a reality.
I am no psychologist, but I do know the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It seems to me that if you survive torture, oppression and people trying to murder you, you either crumble or you become very, very robust. You also tend to start to believe that you are right in what you think, do, aspire to. Especially if you are treated by the outside world as a courageous heroine, a beautiful virginal symbol of whatever is good in the world. And as we know, lack of criticism can make people rather single-minded and egocentric. Let’s take another look at Benazir Bhutto. After Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, she was elected the country’s new Prime Minister. At her inauguration, she spoke beautiful words: “We gather together to celebrate freedom, to celebrate democracy, to celebrate the three most beautiful words in the English language: ‘we the people’.” Soon, though, she got rid of other political parties, establishing a single-party government. She started suppressing Kashmiri fighting for their independence and allowing her military to intervene in Afghanistan, “to prove her loyalty”. She expanded the atomic weapons program and according to a 2008 book, she even sold nuclear secrets to North Korea in 1993, in return for data on missile technology.
That same year, “Operation Blue Fox” reportedly killed thousands of her political adversaries, and a little later her brother was shot and killed by police, after she had said in public that “Pakistan only needed one Bhutto, not two”. There were corruption scandals too, with the New York Times claiming in 1998 that the Bhuttos had stolen at least 100 million from the country and that their Swiss bank accounts contained 740 million. Pounds, that is. It led The Guardian’s Asia specialist William Dalrymple to conclude after her assignation in 2008 that she had been a “flawed and feudal princess”. Somebody who used the royal “we” when she was talking about herself and who once accused the sun of shining in the wrong direction. But Dalrymple made another interesting observation about Bhutto that most likely fits Aung San Suu Kyi as well. Bhutto, the historian and journalist said, seemed like one of us: almost Western in the way she presented and spoke. And she was also very “attractive for what she wasn’t”: a man with a beard shouting “death to the West” while wielding a sword. Bhutto was somebody who we could understand, but also somebody we thought we could manipulate a little, mould to our own image. Of course, we were wrong. And we could have known that by the courage both women displayed in withstanding their trials and tribulations. If they didn’t succumb to torture, why did we think they would do what we told them to?
Jean Paul Sartre taught us decades ago, “purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You use it as a pretext for doing nothing…Do you think you can govern innocently?”
Another issue is that it is relatively easy to have strong opinions about politics while you are not in it. Anybody can use the term “democracy” or advocate “civil rights” and “freedom” from a prison cell. Once you become the leader of a country, however, you have to deal with the daily grind of politics. And that means compromises, firstly, and secondly the risk of making the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely” a reality. The nature of political morality, Jean Paul Sartre taught us decades ago, is that you risk dirty hands. In his 1948 play of that name, one of the characters says that “purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You use it as a pretext for doing nothing…Do you think you can govern innocently?” Maybe it is an idea to look at one of our greatest heroes to show that dilemma in action. Nelson Mandela, of course, carried the hope of the world on his shoulders when he was finally released in 1990, 27 years after he was put behind bars. Mandela was going to change everything and oversee a non-racist, free and peaceful (South) Africa. He could do no wrong and was feted everywhere he went.
So how did that turn out? Obviously, Mandela did a lot of great things during his time as President. But there were also many, many problems with his reign. This started almost straight away, with Mandela offering the white government at the time a cease fire, which a lot of his ANC mates didn’t like at all. He agreed to let white people keep their civil servant jobs and promised them positions within the new multiracial government. He embraced private enterprise and accepted the influence of international businesses in the country, also despite the fury of his old comrades in arms. There was no nationalising of assets, although that was one of the ANC’s core principles. Perpetrators of crimes under Apartheid were not punished if they told their story and said sorry to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela’s wife Winnie, the woman who had stood by him, raised his children and had been imprisoned and tortured for being his spouse, was unceremoniously removed and replaced when she became a liability in 1996. And then there were Mandela’s friends, like Suharto, the Indonesian occupier of East Timor, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Mandela did not apologise for any of it. And why would he? Although he was progressively turned into a cuddly toy and a sweet grandfather, he was still the steely, unbending freedom fighter he had been on Robben Island. Not a victim, not a sweet old man, but a savvy politician who ran his country the way he wanted, without deferring to anybody else.
I can give you dozens of other examples. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, once the bright hope of the West, now a dictator with tens of thousands of killings to his name. Lech Wałęsa, the great champion of worker’s rights and civil liberties in Poland, who turned himself from electrician and leader of trade union, Solidarity, into the country’s first freely elected President in the 1990s. After which he outlawed abortion, limited the power of the parliament, sacked everybody who disagreed with him and then said that homosexuals should sit “behind a wall” if they were ever, God forbid, elected in parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi is in great company, of men and women who were the darlings of the Western world for a while.
Until they became their own people, whether we liked it or not.