Andrew Selth, a Research Fellow
at the Griffith Asia Institute, will appear on a panel at the Lowy Institute tomorrow on Burma's transition. To attend, find details here.
There was a time when to criticise Aung San Suu Kyi was to court a firestorm of angry responses from her worldwide legion of supporters, who ranged from radical Burmese activists to conservative Western officials. She was considered by many to be without fault and without peer.
That situation has now changed, as the Burmese opposition leader has gone from being a democracy icon to a practicing politician, a process that has obliged her to adopt public positions on a wide range of contentious issues. Criticisms are now being leveled at Aung San Suu Kyi from many quarters, both within Burma and outside it. Questions have even been raised about her future leadership role, something that would have been unthinkable not long ago.
For more than 20 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was the living symbol of Burma's non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights in the face of the world's most durable military dictatorship. Despite being under house arrest for long periods, and denied access to her family, she remained true to her convictions. She inspired millions with her high ideals and dignified resistance to oppression. This earned her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and numerous other prestigious international awards.
It did not hurt her global standing that Aung San Suu Kyi was also an intelligent, English-speaking and attractive woman. This stood in stark contrast to Burma's exclusively male military leadership, which was frequently caricatured by activists, the international news media and even some foreign governments as a collection of superstitious and corrupt thugs. The differences between them were made even more obvious by the regime's blatant human rights abuses and seemingly irrational policies.
Being denied a public voice for so long, Aung San Suu Kyi's views on many important issues were unknown. Even when able to speak publicly, she tended to express herself in terms of broad democratic principles and Buddhist moral precepts. This may have reflected her party's lack of a detailed and agreed policy platform, but it encouraged her supporters, both inside Burma and outside it, to project onto her all their hopes and dreams. Even by some experienced observers, she came to be seen as the answer to all of Burma's complex problems.
Indeed, she routinely attracted such accolades as 'the bravest and most moral person in the world', giving her enormous moral authority. This was difficult to exercise inside Burma, but she gained a strong following overseas and had a marked impact on the attitudes of the international community. For years, she effectively determined the parameters of US policy towards Burma. People like UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US First Lady Laura Bush became her champions. Other politicians saw benefits in being publicly associated with the photogenic opposition leader.
However, this widespread admiration — adulation even — had a downside. Some of her policies were challenged but, in public at least, there was little critical examination of Aung San Suu Kyi herself. After some mildly negative comments were bitterly attacked, few public figures dared to incur the wrath of her supporters. Others held back for fear of giving the military regime ammunition that could be used in its propaganda campaigns against her. The result was a degree of self-censorship on the part of journalists, biographers and even academics.
Since her release from house arrest in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi has had to make the difficult transition from political prisoner and democracy icon to party leader and opposition member of parliament. She had always been an active player in Burma's power games, for example by using her international status to influence the policies of foreign governments and organisations. But she is now expected to have a view on every topical issue, a demand complicated by her interest in running for president — constitutional amendment permitting — in 2015. Her every action and statement, or lack thereof, is subject to close scrutiny.
This has often placed her in a difficult position. Last year, for example, she was criticised for not speaking out against the sectarian violence in Arakan State and the civil war in Kachin State. Earlier this year, she was heckled by angry villagers at Letpadaung after a commission of enquiry under her leadership failed to deliver the expected results. She has had to answer criticisms of her low key response to anti-Muslim riots in central Burma and she was accused of betraying her principles by attending the annual Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw.
While not given much exposure in the international news media, there are also other critics of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (in addition, that is, to hardline elements in the armed forces). For example, she is perceived by many as a strong Burman centralist, unsympathetic to the aspirations of the ethnic minorities to separate states or a federal system of government. She also has detractors among more radical opposition groups who reject her cautious, conciliatory approach to the current government and apparent support for an amnesty on past human rights abuses. These voices are now becoming louder and more widely reported.
Given the quite unrealistic expectations held by her supporters, it was inevitable that many would be disappointed. Just as Aung San Suu Kyi has had to grapple with the harsh realities of Burmese politics, so have her followers. They are learning the hard way that all politicians have to make compromises and, particularly in Burma's volatile political environment, they are rarely able to satisfy everyone. Also, as Aung San Suu Kyi knows, anyone aspiring to a leadership role in Burma has to work with the armed forces, still the country's most powerful political institution.
In international circles, Aung San Suu Kyi remains a charismatic figure. She has recently attracted some criticism, including from prominent human rights organisations, but she is still highly regarded. Also, few politicians, particularly in the Western democracies, want to be openly critical of such a political rock star. Even if they have reservations about her reputed inflexibility and strong leadership style, her lack of practical experience or her stance on particular issues, they know that they will have to work with her to achieve their aims in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi's many qualities are not in doubt. However, she is now being viewed more as a real person, with many of the strengths and weaknesses of real people, rather than as some kind of ethereal being floating above the rough and tumble of Burmese politics. She is also gradually becoming accepted as a hard-headed politician trying to hold together a fractious party and act strategically in a divided country where politics is dominated by tactics and personalities.
The critical stories about her appearing in the news media and on websites may upset some, but they reflect a more mature and balanced appreciation of her important place in modern Burmese history. In one sense, that is to be welcomed as much as her long-awaited entry into the country's political arena.
Photo by Flickr user totaloutnow.