Photo: Agence France-Presse.
In 2012, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Elie Wiesel Award for human rights by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Earlier this week, the honor was rescinded. The news left people around the world to grapple with the implications of the reversion. How could it be that this leader, once among the most respected champions of human rights in history, has now so egregiously abandoned her virtues?
A Heroic Past
Suu Kyi is from Myanmar, a nation in Southeast Asia that spent almost 50 years under military rule. This regime was both repressive and resolute. Its hostilities brought pro-democracy activists out in protest, but their struggle would have to endure for more than 20 years before a civilian government was finally implemented. The world watched this situation with amazement, inspired by the tremendous drive and power of the Burmese people, the success of their nonviolent campaign, and the eventual victory that evoked a rare feeling of justice in the world. And the figurehead of this movement, the leader that came to personify its virtues and victories, is Aung San Suu Kyi.
First getting involved with the movement at the height of the protests in 1988, Suu Kyi became an outspoken advocate at the fore of the push for human rights and democracy. Her leadership threatened the ruling military junta, so as they cracked down on the movement in 1989, she was placed under house arrest and completely isolated from the outside world. Her image as a martyr of the movement was solidified when she refused a deal with the government that would allow her release, provided she never return to Myanmar.
Then, after the international system successfully pressured the junta to hold free elections the following year, and after Suu Kyi achieved a landslide democratic victory, the government’s refusal to concede or to release her rocketed Suu Kyi to international hero status. Her encouragement of disciplined civil resistance, rather than violence, seemed to place her among the ranks of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as history’s most incredible leaders. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, plus a slew of other accolades that recognized her relentless struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights. This included the Elie Wiesel Award, given “to an internationally prominent individual whose actions have advanced the Museum’s vision of a world where people confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.”
A Horrific Present
To those aware of the situation in Myanmar today, rescission of the award based on its above criteria will come as no surprise. To those unaware, let these standards underscore the severity of what is going on. The Rohingya people, a legally unrecognized group in Myanmar, are undergoing a systematic ethnic cleansing by the country’s military. More than half a million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh, desperately trying to escape persecution and the destruction of their homes and villages. UN Secretary General António Guterres has called the crisis “catastrophic.” And despite the overtly devastating human rights abuses unfolding in Myanmar, Suu Kyi, the nation’s civilian leader, has failed to do anything.
“As the military’s attacks against the Rohingya unfolded in 2016 and 2017, we had hoped that you—as someone we and many others have celebrated for your commitment to human dignity and universal human rights—would have done something to condemn and stop the military’s brutal campaign and to express solidarity with the targeted Rohingya population,” reads the letter to Suu Kyi from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The National League for Democracy, under your leadership, has instead refused to cooperate with United Nations investigators, promulgated hateful rhetoric against the Rohingya community, and denied access to and cracked down on journalists trying to uncover the scope of the crimes in Rakhine State.”
The Harsh Reality
It is incredibly difficult to see heroes fall. When it happens, though, it becomes incredibly easy to question whether there are any true heroes in the world. If the Rohingya crisis happened after Suu Kyi’s fall from political power, for example, she would have lived on forever as a hero. Only because this is happening today can we see that she perhaps never truly was one.
How, then, do we reconcile Suu Kyi’s incredible triumph of human rights in the past with the horrific ethnic cleansing happening under her rule today? To do it, we have to remove her from the equation almost entirely. See, Aung San Suu Kyi was not the revolution. She has come to symbolize its victory, yes, but that battle was fought and won with people power. Citizens of Myanmar who stood up for their rights—who committed themselves to nonviolence, who participated in the democratic process, and who endured this struggle for more than 20 years—they were the revolution.
People power won. Aung San Suu Kyi played a huge role the process, but the world rewarded her too much for it, overlooking a few critical points. First, nonviolence is a tactic, not simply a virtue. All those who use it need not be virtuous. Second, a leader fighting for their own people’s rights does not mean that they would do the same for all. An article from 2012 in Foreign Policy, written just about one year into Suu Kyi’s leadership, was already criticizing her neglect of minorities in Myanmar. Third, perfect human beings do not exist, even though the world yearns for them. Digging deep enough into the history of any revered figure will reveal faults, although most are greatly outweighed by the benefits of that person’s existence. Often, however, in the midst of awarding and celebrating a newly crowned hero, nobody is digging.
The biggest lessons to take away from this tragic situation regard leaders, humanity, and the dangers of putting too much trust in either. Just as Aung San Suu Kyi began encouraging the nonviolent mobilization of citizens decades ago, they should today be mobilized against her. People power is still the key to a better world.