Aung San Suu Kyi And The Challenge of Living Up To An Ideal

Aung San Suu Kyi meets with protesters.

Aung San Suu Kyi (right) meets with protesters.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has spent much of her adult life (including twenty years spent mostly under house arrest) opposing Burma’s totalitarian military rule, is learning a hard lesson about the conflict between idealism and politics.

Affectionately called “The Lady,” or “Mother Suu,”  Suu Kyi is largely beloved in her home country. A leading activist for democracy in Burma (also called Myanmar), as well as the daughter of the famed general who led the fight for Burmese independence in 1947, Suu Kyi has long been revered by her countrymen, even idolized. The sacrifices she willingly made for her belief in a free and democratic Burma–living in house arrest, being separated from her children and dying husband, refusing to leave Burma for fear of permanent exile–have only endeared her more to the people she represents.

Her release from house arrest in 2010 and election to Burma’s parliament in 2012 were triumphant moments in her lifelong struggle. Forced to the sidelines by the oppressive government for so long, Suu Kyi would finally be able to be directly involved in shaping her country’s future. But dealing with the complex world of politics has seemingly put Suu Kyi in compromising positions, caught between her need to work within an imperfect system and the hopes of those who view her as a pure symbol of Burmese freedom.

Her current predicament is centered around protests over a proposed copper mine expansion in the Letpadaung Mountain region. The mine is a joint venture between Burma’s military and wealthy Chinese investors, and protesters argue that it greatly pollutes the local land and displaces farmers, while providing few new jobs or economic benefits to offset the damage. As protests to the mine grew in intensity, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, put Suu Kyi in charge of investigating the issue. When Suu Kyi ultimately sided with the government and mine owners, asking the protesters to cease, she earned the wrath of people in the affected villages, as well as Burmese journalists and commentators.

Suu Kyi’s position is a complex one. Opposing the mine expansion would anger China, Burma’s top foreign investor. Even worse, it could seriously hurt relations between the military and the civilian government- the alliance on which the move towards a truly free Burma is built. Suu Kyi has also argued that profits from the mine might, over time, help offset its immediate damages to the Letpadaung area and villages. But for the people in the villages whose homes are threatened by the mine, these considerations aren’t enough. They only see their former idol turning on them.

Unfortunately, it’s not the first time Suu Kyi has been forced to compromise. Despite vows to not take the oath of office for parliament until some troublesome wording in the oath was altered, Suu Kyi did indeed recite the oath and take office. And she received criticism for largely remaining silent in regards to the Rakhine State riots, in which violent conflicts between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left 88 people dead and some 90,000 people displaced.

In short, the idealized reality of Aung San Suu Kyi–symbol of freedom–is at odds with the often dirty business of politics. In some ways, Suu Kyi’s struggles to reconcile her symbolic status with the more complex reality of governing is reminiscent of the struggles of Barack Obama. During the 2008 presidential election, Obama was seen as a symbol of hope and change for many. But once elected, Obama frequently found himself caught up in politics, negotiating with his opponents to affect reforms that often ended up seeming compromised and lacking. As such, many Obama supporters turned against him, feeling Obama failed to live up to the promises he was revered for.

That position is understandable, but it’s also important to remember that even the best people are imperfect, and that politics and governing is a complex and often ugly business, one in which it’s impossible to please everyone, and compromise is unfortunately required for any progress to be made. It’s a tough lesson to take, especially when dealing with figures like Suu Kyi and Obama who inspire such passion.  But for better or worse, even the most idealized and beloved are unable to remain untarnished in the eyes of their followers.

Regardless of this controversy, Aung San Suu Kyi will continue fighting for her country and beliefs, even if it means disappointing people. As she said in The New York Times, “I have never done anything just for popularity. Sometimes politicians have to do things that people dislike.”

To learn more about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggles to lead Burma to democracy, check out Champion of Freedom: Aung San Suu Kyi by Sherry O’Keefe (ISBN# 978-1-59935-168-1) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.   To learn about other people who devoted their lives to the fight for freedom and justice, check out Morgan Reynolds Publishing’s acclaimed and award winning Champion of Freedom series, which in addition to Suu Kyi, features biographies of Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

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Published in: on March 21, 2013 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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