The saint who turned into a monster (for many)
Is it always a mistake to make idols of politicians? After decades opposing the military regime in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is now defending the army in court against charges of genocide.
Elegant, intelligent, courageous. Thirty years ago, there was a new face to the fight for democracy and human rights around the world. The Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest in the capital Rangoon, captured the imagination of millions.
Leader of a democratic movement suppressed by the military dictatorship, she won the Nobel Peace Prize and became a “symbol of hope”; her name mentioned alongside the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.
But, today, she stands up in the International Court of Justice to defend her country’s human rights record. Myanmar is accused of genocide after a brutal military assault began in 2016 against the Rohingya ethnic minority.
Some say Myanmar’s leader has turned from saint to monster in the space of three years. Is this fair?
Until her release in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was the world’s most famous political prisoner. In 2015, her party won a landslide election and she formed a new government working with the military. For her supporters in Myanmar and around the world, this felt like the victory of democracy over dictatorship, hope over despair.
Within months, hope turned to anger. In 2016, the military led a campaign of violence against the Rohingyas, killing thousands and displacing over half a million across the border into Bangladesh. International investigators accused the government of ethnic cleansing. Aung San Suu Kyi did nothing.
Amnesty International called her lack of action a “shameful betrayal” of the values she embodied. But she told the BBC, “I’m no Mother Theresa,” and she has always resisted attempts to turn her into an idol or saint, describing herself as a pragmatic politician.
Whilst under house arrest, she was a symbol of the “power of the powerless”. Without power, people could project their values onto her and make her an icon of peaceful resistance. But now she has political power, this is no longer possible.
Journalist Mary Dejevsky says, “We made the mistake of putting her on such a high pedestal.” Her cause was always Burmese nationalism, not world peace. So we should not be surprised she is in court defending her country today.
But does that mean we should never turn politicians into idols?
No more heroes
Some say Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace doesn’t mean we should abandon our political idols. We need hope, principles and ideals in politics and we need to raise our politicians up to a higher standard. When they fail to live up to those ideals, we can feel disappointed, angry and betrayed. But if we don’t ask our leaders to be heroes, we should not be surprised if all we get are villains.
No more hero-worship, say others. Heroes make great stories, but are bad for the real world. In reality, nothing is black or white, good or evil. Politics is about compromise and difficult decisions, and by turning Aung San Suu Kyi into a living saint, we were blind to her views and her limitations. We deceived ourselves, but if we are surprised and disappointed, we only have ourselves to blame.
- Do we need political heroes?
- What are the qualities of a political idol?
- We need new political heroes to solve the world’s problems. Design an election poster for your new Hero Party. What are your principles and promises to voters? Do you have a slogan to inspire people? Will you ask voters to make difficult choices?
- Hero or villain? Choose a famous person, living or dead, and write one paragraph presenting them as a hero and another as a villain. You can’t make anything up!
Some People Say...
“The political hero is not like the sports champion […], like the war hero, he is born only of tragedy.”David Grann, US journalist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Myanmar has been taken to the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide against the Rohingya minority. The UN has collected evidence showing human rights violations, but the Burmese government has called these allegations “exaggerations”. They consider the Rohingyas to be illegal migrants from the predominantly Muslim country of Bangladesh. This will be the first case of genocide to be heard at the court since the 1990s.
- What do we not know?
- The international community was surprised when Aung San Suu Kyi announced, last month, that she would attend the court proceedings. By doing so, Myanmar recognises the court’s legitimacy. However, we don’t know whether the Burmese government will accept the court’s ruling, or why Aung San Suu Kyi decided to attend.
- Nobel Peace Prize
- An annual award given to an individual or organisation working towards peace. Recent winners include Barack Obama and the European Union.
- Dalai Lama
- The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
- Nelson Mandela
- Former South African president and anti-apartheid activist.
- International Court of Justice
- Also known as the World Court, is part of the United Nations. It is based in The Hague, in the Netherlands, and settles international disputes and crimes against humanity.
- Also known as Burma. It was renamed Myanmar by the military regime in 1989, but many countries continue to use the old British colonial name for the country.
- A Muslim ethnic minority in the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Since independence, Myanmar has faced continual ethnic violence and its government has been accused of persecuting and failing to protect its minorities.
- Mother Theresa
- A Roman Catholic nun and missionary famous for her charitable work in India. She died in 1997 and was made a saint in 2015.
- Originally an image or object representing a god or deity, a modern idol is anyone who is admired for who they are and what they represent.