Guest Column

Giving the Lady a Hard Time

By Christian Caryl 28 September 2012

As I write this, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting the United States for the first time in more than 40 years. Before this trip, the last time she visited the US was back in the 1960s, when she spent three years working at the United Nations in New York. Much later, in 1988, she returned to her homeland, where she found herself—by dint of an illustrious father who had helped to guide Burma to its independence after World War II—thrust into the leadership of a national movement to resist military dictatorship. What happened next has been recounted many times: state-sponsored harassment; repeated near assassination at the hands of the regime’s goons; the death or imprisonment of countless friends and colleagues; long years of house arrest and jail; separation from her family; and her gradual rise to a position as one of the world’s most respected dissidents.

Now, thanks to a reform course launched by Burmese President Thein Sein two years ago, the Lady and many other activists have finally found their way back to freedom. For so many years she refused to leave Burma out of the fear that the ruling junta wouldn’t let her back in; now those days are over, and she’s touring the globe to receive three decades’ worth of deferred honors. Back at home she’s been elected to a seat in Parliament and her image, long banned, now routinely graces the front pages of the papers.

At Foreign Policy, we’ve been following this extraordinary trajectory with sympathy and respect. But lately we’ve also called her out on a couple of things. And this—judging by some of the things that people have said to us, or even written—has sometimes prompted the ire of our readers.

Look, let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Aung San Suu Kyi is an extraordinary moral exemplar and a remarkable political leader. As she made the rounds here in Washington and New York over the past few days, she reminded us why. Somehow, over these long years of struggle, she has managed to keep her unbending devotion to justice even while demonstrating rare qualities of eloquence, charisma and self-deprecating charm.

But it’s not her unsurpassed ability to woo cynical Washington politicians and pundits that earns our respect. Her long and tortuous non-violent struggle for human rights in Burma undeniably places her in the exalted ranks of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Vaclav Havel. She belongs there. She’s earned it.

Yet it’s also important to remember that none of these people were gods. They all made their mistakes, political as well as personal. None of them should have been off limits to criticism. They’ve all been subjected to harsh scrutiny by their contemporaries as well as by historians. And this is in the nature of things. It is, in fact, their personal failings and peccadilloes that accentuate their achievements.

Burma’s efforts to find its way toward the ranks of the world’s open societies is a hugely important but also insanely complex undertaking, replete with tactical dilemmas and difficult compromises. This is precisely why Foreign Policy’s journalists have tried to illuminate it in all of its aspects, noting the dark tones as well as the bright ones.

Aung San Suu Kyi can hardly be exempt from this process. She’s a human being, too. And her new role as a democratically elected member of her country’s Parliament means, more than ever, that she should be subject to the same public scrutiny as any other politician. Indeed, we’d like to feel that we honor her most by holding her to the high public standard of conduct she’s established over the past 40 years. This is all the more reason to question her actions when they deserve it.

Along the way, it’s our Burmese blogger Min Zin—an alumnus of the 1988 student uprising against the military who has spent the years since then tracking the ins and outs of Burmese politics—who has asked some of the sharpest questions of all. He has criticized the Lady’s high-minded insistence on refusing to take an oath to the current Constitution upon entering Parliament; as he predicted, she was subsequently compelled to make a humiliating climb-down when this position proved untenable. And he has taken her to task for her failure to set up a proper staff—a seemingly mundane yet vitally important undertaking for someone who is not only the de facto leader of the parliamentary opposition at a crucial moment in her country’s history but also its face to the outside world.

Min Zin was also among the first to note her ambiguous stance on the sectarian conflict in Arakan State, when she declined to defend the racially motivated attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denounced by many chauvinistic Burmese as dark-skinned “immigrants” (even though most of them have lived in the country for generations). He knew that this wouldn’t make him any friends among his compatriots, and responses to his post proved him correct. “How dare you criticize Myanmar people’s wishes and accuse [Aung San Suu Kyi] and 88 Student leaders as racists for standing up for our country?” was among the mildest of the responses that his commentary evoked.

In a subsequent article, Min Zin showed how the government’s embrace of exclusionary rhetoric—President Thein Sein even called for the wholesale deportation of the Rohingyas—enabled it to outflank Burma’s pro-democracy activists by positioning itself as the defender of “national sovereignty.” Given the strength of nationalist feeling among the ethnic Burman majority, there’s no question that this has put Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the pro-democracy movement in a delicate political position. Min Zin’s point that “sectarian conflict is bad for democracy” strikes me as one that is essential to the future of a liberal political order in Burma.

The sorts of issues we’re talking about here need to be addressed. Yet anyone who writes about such topics can count on bearing the brunt of the intense emotions that swirl around them. (Just take a look at the long list of often vicious comments generated by William McGovan’s article “Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhism Problem,” not to mention other provocative pieces by Francis Wade, Spike Johnson and Hanna Hindstrom.) As we see it, such criticism comes with the territory.

Hopefully Aung San Suu Kyi sees it that way too. During one of her Washington appearances she noted that the Burmese people “are having to be taught to ask questions” of their leaders—apparently not entirely aware of the contradiction the remark implies. (My own limited experience in Burma suggests that ordinary folk are already very good at asking questions of those in power, thank you.) It would, of course, be all too understandable if her long years of persecution have imbued her with the sense that criticism is something that only comes from enemies. Is she now equipped to bear well-intended criticism from her friends? And not only to bear it, but to take it into account?

We’ll see. As the government continues its push to loosen restrictions on the press, Burma’s leaders—now including the Lady—will have to get used to seeing their actions subjected to public scrutiny.

Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.