The principles that made Aung San Suu Kyi an icon are what undid her | Mary Dejevsky

The Myanmar leader’s fall from grace is partly because we made the mistake of putting her on such a high pedestal

The image of Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was one of untrammelled moral rectitude, remote dignity and immense personal authority – until very recently. The UN report released this week on the violence against the Rohingya minority found that, while she had no power over the generals it named as responsible, she had “not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine”.

It said that her government – she is state counsellor, akin to prime minister – had contributed to what had happened by denying the generals’ culpability, spreading false narratives and preventing independent investigations.

The UN findings – based on the testimony of refugees now in Bangladesh, because its mission was barred from Myanmar – echo the condemnation voiced by many at the time, to the effect that by saying nothing, by not using the admittedly limited room for manoeuvre she had, Aung San Suu Kyi had become complicit with the very generals she had spent so much of her life opposing. It goes so far as to argue that the generals concerned should be investigated for genocide.

The UN is due to publish a more detailed report next month. But whatever evidence it produces, it is considered unlikely that Myanmar’s generals will face an international court. Such action would require a UN security council vote, which China would be likely to veto.

The judicial process is one thing, however; the moral opprobrium that now attaches to Aung San Suu Kyi – revered and idealised for so long, especially in the western world – constitutes a reversal of fortunes that verges on tragedy. There are those, such as the Italian senator and human rights campaigner, Emma Bonino, who argue that she should be stripped of the Nobel peace prize she was awarded while under house arrest in 1991. For others, the damage to her reputation is testimony – and punishment – enough.

But there are perhaps two more general points to be made. The first is the black and white way the western world especially tends to treat those it has elevated to heroes. Aung San Suu Kyi – uncompromising, high-minded, yet demure, in her luxuriant garden – is how we used to see her. Now it is as an ethically compromised leader, either too weak or perhaps simply, deep-down, too much of a Burmese nationalist even to try to protect a persecuted minority. There was little recognition at the time she was under house arrest to regard her as anything less than the democratic leader that Myanmar was waiting for.

The second is that those who stand up for their cause – to the point of imprisonment, even death – can also be awkward and uncomfortable individuals. Their single-mindedness, a certain stubbornness, is what can set them apart. Aung San Suu Kyi had a cause, an immense sense of duty, inherited from her Burmese nationalist father, Aung San, who died by an assassin’s hand in 1947. Her sense of responsibility to her nation transcended all else. It led her to return to her homeland – and likely imprisonment – from the safety of her UK exile. When confronted with the choice between nation and family, she chose nation: deciding not to return to her family in the UK, even when her husband became terminally ill.

One of the awards she won was the Sakharov prize – named in honour of the Soviet nuclear physicist turned human rights campaigner, who was forced into internal exile and freed only after Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader. In the few years that remained to him, he became something of a thorn in his liberator’s side. Admirable in so many ways, the Soviet-era dissidents could be awkward individuals who found it hard to fit in – or who saw it as their business not to fit in, and spoke uncomfortable truth to power. Take Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was repeatedly imprisoned and exiled in his native land, rejected materialism in his US exile, and lived in similar seclusion after returning, in short-lived triumph, to Russia – ever the lone voice in the wilderness.

Think too, just now, of John McCain – the admiral’s son shot down in Vietnam who refused to use his privilege to buy his freedom. Returning to the US as an all-American hero, McCain went into business and then into politics, where he may have been that bit too much of a rebel ever to become president. Between the lines of some of the obituaries this week, you will find allusions to the fact that McCain could be stubborn; sometimes a difficult man to get along with.

Aung San Suu Kyi has disappointed because, in the end, for whatever reason, she appears to have compromised. But she has disappointed also because the pedestal that we – especially in the west – placed her on was just too high. Her sense of mission, her principles and her stubborn streak took her so far, but no further. That is our shortcoming, as much as hers.

• Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster


Mary Dejevsky

The GuardianTramp

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