Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed civilian leader of Myanmar who was once hailed as a global leader for democracy and human rights, is facing at least two years in prison on charges that followed a military coup in February.
International support for Suu Kyi, 76, has been muted. Her reputation has been marred by her implicit support of the alleged genocide by her government against Rohingya Muslims.
In 2019—four years after she had been swept to power in an openly-contested election, and 28 years after she had received the Nobel Peace Prize—Suu Kyi spoke at the International Court of Justice at The Hague to defend a military crackdown that has exiled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Her rationalization of that action (in addition to a 2018 arrest of journalists in Myanmar) has been difficult to square with the image of a globally recognized activist who spent 15 years under house arrest for her crusade to bring democracy to Myanmar.
“It was surprising how casual and nonchalant she was about it,” Pablo Calderon-Martinez, an assistant professor in politics and international relations at NCH at Northeastern in London, says of Suu Kyi’s justification of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. “She called the generals ‘rather sweet.’ It sounded as though she was actually supporting the ethnic cleansing—that she was not accepting it reluctantly, but that she saw it as a good thing.
“So it was very hard to reconcile the idealized version of this woman that is fighting for democracy and what was one of the most shameful episodes of this century.”
Calderon-Martinez spoke with News@Northeastern about Suu Kyi’s fall from grace and what it means for democracy. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
In the 1990s, Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela appeared to be sharing the global stage as leaders of the human rights movement. No one at that time would have envisioned her tacit support of ethnic cleansing.
I would perhaps put in that category as well the Dalai Lama. These three key figures during the 1990s and 2000s were revered.
What she did surprised me a lot. I cannot for my life imagine Nelson Mandela doing something similar—if nothing else because I think he was way too savvy a political operator to be caught in anything quite as damaging as that, beyond the obvious ideological reasons.
Suu Kyi’s support of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims damaged her credibility around the world. Did this also empower the military to move upon her in February, knowing that Western leaders were unlikely to rise to her defense?
When the military regime was opening up [prior to her 2015 election], Suu Kyi was key to the international pressure. She was like a rock star. And I’m sure that played a big part in putting pressure on the regime to open up, because she had a lot of power and influence.
And that changed overnight. What international leader in Europe or North America is going to support her? She’s been tainted by that action forever, really, and there’s no coming back from that.
What does this say about tying movements to a single leader—whether it’s George Washington in the U.S., or Mandela in South Africa, or Suu Kyi in Myanmar?
We always seem to have this idea of personalizing these huge political transformations, right? With the Solidarity movement in Poland [during the Cold War 1980s] you had Lech Walesa, and you identified almost single-handedly democracy in Poland—and the whole Eastern Bloc—with him. It’s a way in which we simplify things to understand very complex and difficult processes.
When you put a face to the movement, that face is always going to be imperfect—even when the transition to democracy is successful.
It’s becoming a trend: It’s harder and harder to pick out the good guys from the bad guys. That idea we had in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan when it was so simple to distinguish one from the other—that’s gone. Who knows who the good guys are? Who knows who the bad guys are? Or who are the least bad, and the least good? It’s very complicated.
How does the fall of Suu Kyi fit with diminishing support for democracy around the world?
It definitely doesn’t help. For the first time that I can remember, there is not that big fighter for democracy. There’s no Nelson Mandela. There’s no Suu Kyi. There is no one holding the flag for democracy around the globe that you can look up to and admire. Which is really, really sad.