Aung San Suu Kyi on a sticker promoting Myanmar's National League for Democracy party, 2014. Photo by Adam Jones.
A hero’s fall from public esteem to ignominy happens so often that it seldom shocks us anymore, but a Nobel Peace Prize winner’s performance at the International Court of Justice last week startled even the most jaded celebrity-bashers.
Aung San Suu Kyi entered the proceedings as a passive onlooker, as the Myanmar military committed a string of atrocities against the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority group in the country’s west. She emerged as the military’s apologist and enabler – and, I suspect, as a near-pariah among the global community of human rights advocates that once considered her almost a living saint.
Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese names include no surname) won the Nobel award in 1991 for resisting the long-standing military government in her country, formerly known as Burma. She spent 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest. During that period, she was the target of at least one assassination attempt, and her husband died abroad because local authorities refused to grant him a visa to visit her. She would have been a shoo-in for the presidency when civilian rule returned, but she was disqualified because her children and late husband were foreign citizens. Instead, in 2016 she assumed a newly created position as State Counsellor, or roughly a prime minister. The army maintained control of key ministries.
Long-simmering aggression toward the Rohingya flared in 2017, when the military began a campaign that observers around the world have described as ethnic cleansing. By late 2018, more than 900,000 Rohingya had fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Some 500,000 were in detention in Myanmar under dire conditions. Advocates reported the military’s widespread murder, torture and sexual abuse of the Rohingya. A majority Muslim West African nation, Gambia, brought the case to the International Court of Justice. This brings us back to Aung San Suu Kyi’s disappointing performance there.
Since at least 2017, some observers have accused Aung San Suu Kyi of enabling the persecution of the Rohingya by her silence and indifference. At the ICJ hearing in Brussels, the erstwhile global role model left no doubt. She denied any systematic persecution or eviction of the Rohingya, despite satellite imagery that shows scores of the group’s communities have been wiped from the map. She claimed any abuses were isolated and that her country’s justice system would deal with violators, although no action of consequence has been taken.
Aung San Suu Kyi still has her fans among Myanmar’s citizens and its diaspora. Some showed up outside the court in The Hague to demonstrate their support. But Western dismay over her performance is palpable. Some have called for her Nobel Prize to be revoked, although no mechanism for such revocation exists.
Thus, Aung San Suu Kyi enters the pantheon of former idols who have revealed that they have feet of common clay.
These fallen idols tend more often to be entertainers like Bill Cosby, tycoons like Harvey Weinstein, and star athletes and sports figures too numerous to list here. Perhaps this is because our expectations of political leaders are so low that our disappointment seldom reaches these levels. Perhaps this is because the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded under controversial circumstances before, including awards to Henry Kissinger in 1973 and to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rabin in 1994 (not to mention Barack Obama at the very start of his presidency in 2009).
Aung San Suu Kyi surpassed our expectations of politicians, at least as long as she did not hold office. But the constraints and demands of political life in a military-dominated, deeply flawed government like Myanmar’s are probably too limiting for sustained saintly behavior. Aung San Suu Kyi gave a performance at The Hague worthy of Vladimir Putin. Russia’s president showed some promise early in his political career as well, but in free civil society, he is nobody’s idea of an idol these days. Neither, any longer, is the woman once seen as the virtual savior of her nation.