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The myths of Aung San Suu Kyi

The same kind of people who made her a saint, now defame her. It is a reminder that we must not overly respect the opinions of the global elite about local affairs

When Aung San Suu Kyi was an activist, she did not have to reveal the full spectrum of her personality. Photo: Getty Images
When Aung San Suu Kyi was an activist, she did not have to reveal the full spectrum of her personality. Photo: Getty Images

About eight years ago, by some miscalculation, the upmarket Hay Festival came to Thiruvananthapuram. Western and Westernized writers were at first gladdened by the packed main hall but then they soon realized that the audience mostly stared with blank faces and did not react at all to the wisdom and subtle wit of the thinkers. Something about the global sophistication of the speakers was lost upon the literate but deeply local children-of-the-soil Malayalis. Sometimes the weight of honesty in the air can be disastrous for a posh literature festival. But then a young white woman, who was one of the volunteers and not an invited thinker, came to the podium and said, her voice choking with emotion, and tears welling in her eyes, that she had just heard the most wonderful news. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest in Burma (now Myanmar) for 15 years over a period of 21 years, had been released by her nation’s reigning military. The Malayali crowd, finally, was moved by something that was said on the stage. There was applause.

I tried to understand the moment. How did it come to be that parotta eaters and the asparagus-eaters were united by the news about an affluent upper-class Burmese lady? Even though writers project intellectual unity as a virtue and polarization as a disease, the fact is that often a uniform opinion across social classes is a sign that one class has conned the rest, and polarization is a sign that the provincial are liberating themselves from the colonization of global scholars.

Humans are fundamentally virtuous, but then they adopt a hierarchy of virtues, and it is the hierarchy that separates us. Suu Kyi was then among the very few people in the world who could bring together people of distinct virtue hierarchies. Her global reputation was at its peak those days; now it is in tatters. This month she defended a Myanmar court’s handing out seven-year jail sentences to two reporters of Reuters, who were at the time of their arrests working on a story on the role of the Burmese State in the murder of Rohingya Muslims. Earlier, when pressured by an American diplomat for their release, she had even called the journalists traitors. The mascot of Western values was now behaving like a third-world dictator. Journalists across the world, who had once contributed to her legend, tweeted their disgust. They didn’t ask themselves why they had been wrong about her, and how they will ensure that they do not create such global myths again. Instead they appeared to convey that they are better human beings than Suu Kyi.

For many months now there has been pressure on her to make some humane statements against the atrocities of her government against the minority Muslim population. The most sanctimonious from the disgusted global elite have asked for the revocation of one of its most coveted good-behaviour awards—the Nobel Peace Prize.

But Suu Kyi has not yielded. She is not a mere activist now. She is a politician, and a part of the government, and she does not wish to do anything to upset her constituency—the majority Bamars. She has done a political triage, and she knows she should let go of the Muslims and appease the majority. She knows her effigies are now burning, but outside her land. She has more at stake in her own nation than the foreigners who are offering her moral advice. Is it possible that she is indeed a saint, and that she cares deeply about the Muslims in her land but feels that her humanitarian posturing will not help them even as it destroys her popularity among the majority? Or, maybe, she is a communal racist who always had secret majoritarian views. In either case, what emerges is that the propensity of the pious global elite to canonize or defame public figures in cultures and circumstances it does not comprehend is a morally spurious enterprise.

The global liberal elite had built the Suu Kyi myth in its own image. She was of good stock, she went to Oxford, spoke with a British accent, she was refined, classy, beautiful. She spoke of such fabulous European inventions like human rights and democracy. The world loved her. At least one American admirer travelled to Rangoon (now Yangon), and swam in stealth across a lake to meet her. She was rewarded in more sane and substantial ways for being an excellent ambassador of Western values. One evening, in 1991, she had heard the news of her Nobel Peace Prize on the radio.

When she accepted the award, in 2012, she played along. In an exquisite Nobel lecture, she said the award should remind us of, “the oneness of humanity". She recalled the six great human miseries as mentioned in Buddhist texts—“to be conceived, to age, to sicken, to die, to be parted from those one loves, to be forced to live in propinquity with those one does not love." She said that human suffering was inescapable, so the role of reformation was not to end suffering but to reduce it. She said she derived her strength to fight the Burmese military junta from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. She quoted some parts, “...disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind..." and she said, “human rights should be protected by the rule of law."

This is exactly what she refuses to do now. When she was an activist she did not have to reveal the full spectrum of her personality. Now that she is a local politician, who is far more useful to her people than when she was as a venerable puppet of the West, she is assuming a different public image—an upper caste Bamar feudal lady who is pained not by human suffering but by the loss of her social status. In response to the calls from intellectuals to revoke her Nobel, Gunnar Stålsett, a former member of the Nobel committee, which is always entirely made up of Norwegian citizens, observed, “The principle we follow is the decision is not a declaration of a saint. When the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee."

It is not the Nobel of Aung San Syu Kyi that has to be revoked, but the morally indefensible right of Western committees to assume they know enough to decide whom the world must look up to.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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