Few countries have ever been so closely associated with a single politician as Burma, whose public “face,” for many decades, was the brave and brilliant dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. I remember her appearance — via a prerecorded videocassette, smuggled out of the country — at the international women’s conference in Beijing in 1995. Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from house arrest, but her speech was not about Burma, also known as Myanmar. Instead she used language designed to appeal to a surreally diverse audience, ranging from Indian activists and German feminists to Saudi women in abayas.
Even today, that speech is inspirational. Aung San Suu Kyi declared that “genuine tolerance requires an active effort to try to understand the point of view of others; it implies broad-mindedness and vision, as well as confidence in one’s own ability to meet new challenges without resorting to intransigence or violence.” In later years, she stuck to that nonviolent message, even when she was placed back under house arrest, and even when her political party was banned and persecuted.
But Aung San Suu Kyi is not a dissident anymore. In late 2010, the Burmese military junta (known by the enigmatic acronym SLORC) launched a democratic transition that eventually gave a victory to her party. She is no longer an activist but the de facto leader. She no longer speaks in generalities to an international audience, but in specifics to the Burmese.
She is also the most visible politician in a state whose public institutions and popular mentality were formed by many years of autocracy and dictatorship — a state where the military and police, though now further back in the shadows, still hold an enormous amount of economic and political power, controlling companies and land as well as ministries and armies. In this sense, she has much in common with other politicians and activists who led authoritarian or totalitarian countries during a transition to democracy: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Lech Walesa in Poland, Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Patricio Aylwin in Chile, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, just to name a few.
Though very different, all of them faced the same structural problem: how to instill tolerance for democratic debate, freedom of speech and the press, respect for judicial independence and the rule of law in countries that were unused to these things or had never had them. All of them had rocky moments or faced coup attempts or corruption scandals. Some of them had some success. Others failed, and no wonder: Democratic values can take generations to instill — or can, as we have seen in the United States, grow rapidly weaker even in countries that have had them for generations.
All of those democratic heroes — with the possible exception of Mandela, who retired early — wound up with vastly diminished reputations. Aung San Suu Kyi now joins their number. For several years, as violence increased between the Burmese Buddhist majority and the Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group whom many don’t consider to be citizens, she kept silent. In August, a Rohingya insurgent group attacked Burmese police posts; the Burmese army responded by burning villages and chasing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya civilians over the border into Bangladesh. In response, Aung San Suu Kyi condemned “all human rights violations and unlawful violence” but refused to criticize her own generals or admit any errors — a response that seems to have been popular among her constituents in Burma but has produced enormous disappointment among her former admirers around the world.
What happened to “broad-mindedness and vision,” or the refusal to bend to “intransigence or violence”? Perhaps Aung San Suu Kyi sympathizes with the popular view of the Rohingya as unwanted foreigners; more likely, she doesn’t control the army, she knows it could still overthrow her government and she doesn’t want to risk a breach with the generals. In truth, the real difference between Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 and 2017 is the difference between theory and practice, opposition and power, the language of an international conference and the language of a country with an autocratic past. The story of her fall from the pedestal is an old story, it repeats itself regularly, and yet every time we are surprised.
In any case, it is pointless to call for her Nobel Prize to be withdrawn: This isn’t a game of symbols anymore. Those worried by the violence and the strange echo it is having in Muslim countries around the world should use real political tools to affect the situation. Governments with influence in Burma should seek contact with the army — bypassing Aung San Suu Kyi if necessary — offer to mediate, organize aid for the refugees and document the tragedy. Above all, they should try to reach Aung San Suu Kyi with political arguments, not pleas from old friends. This isn’t a debate about ideals or symbols; it’s a power struggle.