IT is never easy to come to terms with the frailties of a long revered democratic and humanist icon. Not only because of the many admirable qualities displayed by, and public record of, the individual in question, but also because in a world so deeply mired in self-serving behaviour, such lives remind us of the often forgotten potential of human agency. To learn that our ‘heroes’ have feet of clay and, in effect, are not that different from us, too can come as a brutal let down.
Aung San Suu Kyi has long been held out as a woman of substance, someone who despite the most trying of circumstances did not deviate from her principles. She, like Mahatma Gandhi whom she regards as an exemplar, struggled not merely to free her country from the tyranny of military rule but, equally, to help forge a state and society in which all Myanmarese could live in freedom and with dignity, as bearers of inalienable rights treated as equal in law and no longer hostage to the visicitudes of capricious governments.
Myanmar today is no longer ruled by the Generals. And though the army continues to (like in many other such countries trying to transit from military to civilian rule) exercise considerable influence including in formal structures of governance, there is no denying that Myanmar is a democracy, albeit a weak, fraught and illiberal one. Its representatives in Parliament have been democratically elected; there is a ‘free’ and vigorous media, often critical of the government and a vibrant civil society is clearly in the making.
These are not inconsiderable gains, hardly imaginable even a decade back. Considerable credit for ensuring the transition is due to the remarkable moral and political shepherding by Suu Kyi, in particular her role in tempering the temptation to engage in violent opposition to secure their objectives, both by her personal example of placing ‘service over self’ and in persuading her compatriots to adhere to peaceful means.
One area, however, where both she and the regime have clearly fallen short is in adhering to the commitment to ensure dignity, security and human rights to all residents of the country. And nothing exemplifies this better than the treatment meted out to the Rohingyas in the Rakhine state, subject, by most independent accounts, to violent persecution amounting to ‘ethnic cleansing if not genocide’. Even those familiar with the conflicted history of the Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine, long painted in official narratives as the despicable ‘other’, are intrigued by her troubling silence and tacit approval to the violence unleashed by the state on a ‘hapless people’. She has even gone on to paint all Rohingyas as ‘anti-national and terrorists’, out to destroy the territorial integrity of the country and the ‘oneness’ of its people. This from a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, despite appeals from her fellow laureates – the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousufzai to list a few – comes across as more than mere weakness or ignorance.
Is it that she had always, secretly, bought into the official mythology of the Myanmarese state, believing in the superior claim of the Burmese Buddhists to define the national character? After all, her father not only rejected the claim of the Rohingyas to being considered a nationality, he denied them citizen status. Or is it that in transiting to the role of state building, a process that often involves making difficult trade-offs between contentious and usually morally suspect choices to subserve perceived national interest, she chose to resile from earlier publicly held positions. Clearly, not risking possible alienation of powerful and entrenched forces, including both the army and significant sections of the Buddhist clergy, to ensure regime survival is seen by her as more worthwhile than upholding human rights or risking international opprobrium.
Only the rare individual has successfully made the transition from a highly regarded opposition leader to a politician engaged in the messy business of realpolitik and state building. Even Vaclav Havel, despite little loss of personal and intellectual integrity, arguably failed to arrest the slide to a right wing, authoritarian and crypto-nationalist Czech Republic, distant from the cosmopolitan and humanist vision he worked for. Possibly, one can only think of Nelson Mandela, whose one term as post-apartheid South Africa President passed off relatively unblemished. Even more, his unstinted support to the Archbishop Tutu inspired Truth and Reconciliation Commission not only helped check the much feared violence that marked so many post-revolutionary regimes, but helped create the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation healing a traumatized society.
In failing to decry the violence, Suu Kyi has lost out both as a moral icon and a statesperson. If Myanmar today is more likely to experience greater strife and bloodshed, she will have to shoulder part of the blame. One should not be surprised if future generations choose to judge her somewhat unfavourably.