First we built her up, then we tore her down. For a quarter-century, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar sat alongside Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the exemplary moral figures of our age. Praised and feted around the world and the recipient of nearly every prize and recognition that the international human-rights community has to offer, she was less a person than a chiseled-in-stone idol—a totem of democratic values and principled opposition to tyranny. Now, at least in the eyes of the West, recent events in Myanmar have sent “The Lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is known to her admirers, toppling from her plinth.
Her dramatic fall has been prompted by the ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing that has been directed against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority in Myanmar’s west. The Nobel laureate has come under attack for saying little, and doing less, to stem a military-directed campaign of arson and violence that has driven more than 400,000 people over the border into Bangladesh in little over a month.
As Myanmar’s army torched Rohingya communities, pundits, journalists, and human-rights activists called for the 72-year-old to be stripped of her Nobel Prize and other baubles of international recognition. Her portrait has been removed from the walls of Oxford University. A onetime democratic icon is now being described, accurately, as “an apologist for genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape.”
The fervor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s detractors, however, says as much about us as it does about her. Indeed, the anger seems to stem less from her actions, or lack thereof, than from her stubborn refusal to play the redemptive role assigned to her by the international community. As Gavin Jacobson wrote recently in The New Yorker, the tenor of the denunciations carries a distinct tone of personal betrayal, as if years of investments in Aung San Suu Kyi’s promise had culminated in the bankruptcy of a moral Ponzi scheme. Jacobson argued that Aung San Suu Kyi “has exposed the artlessness with which many in the West reduced a complex personality into a Rapunzel of the East.”
All of this, however, prompts the more fundamental question of why we built her up so much in the first place. Why did we—Western governments, the media, human-rights advocates—invest so much hope in a single, fallible individual?
On one level, it is easy to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s idolization. Her life story traces a romantic arc from the vales of Oxford, to the UN headquarters in New York, to her crumbling family home on the shores of Inya Lake in Yangon, where, like a character out of Gabriel García Márquez, she lived out more than 15 years of house arrest. Revered by ordinary Burmese (though for very different reasons than overseas), Aung San Suu Kyi offered the perfect foil to the villainous Myanmar military, whose violent crackdown on the 1988 demonstrations left hundreds dead. In the subsequent years, Aung San Suu Kyi’s life took on all the qualities of a moral fable: one in which the beautiful daughter of an assassinated national hero sacrifices her own freedom to save her country from tyranny.