Aung San Suu Kyi and the Cult of Personality

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Aung San Suu Kyi and the Cult of Personality

The saintly status surrounding Suu Kyi has led to tunnel vision in the NLD and the international community.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Cult of Personality

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters after giving a speech in Monywa November 30, 2012.

Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Aung San Suu Kyi’s contributions to Myanmar’s democracy are undeniable. She endured 15 years of house arrest under the country’s military junta. She has helped release political prisoners. And she has brought international attention to a nation that desperately needed it.

The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San, Suu Kyi has earned a saint-like status for many. “I think we tend to define and create heroes, and she’s one of them,” said Tim Johnston, Asia Program director at International Crisis Group. According to Johnston, reverence for Suu Kyi is not surprising. “She’s clearly a very remarkable woman,” said Johnston. “She has stood by principles when most other human beings buckled. She’s paid an enormous price.”

However, Johnston added that the public perception of Suu Kyi may not have been in line with her plans. “We have built our dreams into her – when she doesn’t necessarily share those dreams – as an identity.”

Some are accusing Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party as straying into the realm of authoritarianism. A recent article in the Myanmar Times described the NLD’s insular style of governing, including media bans on the party and MPs needing to seek permission from party headquarters before going to civil society events . The restrictions, said the Myanmar Times, are known among the party as than mani, or the “iron rules.”

“There’s a culture within the party of being very untransparent and authoritarian,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “A lot of MPs are under gag orders not talk,” he explains. “They’re really trying to keep party discipline to an undemocratic degree, in my view.”

While it is quite early to judge the new government in Myanmar, there have been other signs that it is off to a rocky start. The newly-appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Aung Ko made a statement referring to those who follow minority religions in the country as “associate citizens.” The man proposed as the government’s new finance and planning minister was said to have a fake degree in finance that he bought from a fake online university.

Suu Kyi has also claimed that she would be “above the president” in her new role as “state counselor” within the Myanmar government, leading some to wonder if these actions undermine the very democracy that she had been advocating for.

Others aren’t so sure. “All democracies are a compromise, to a degree,” said Johnston. “In some ways she is far and away the most popular politician in Myanmar. You could make the argument it’s the constitution that’s undemocratic, not her.” Johnston added that whether someone regards Suu Kyi as democratic or not will depend on their personal view of democracy, also saying that there will be a “period of disillusionment where we learn that she’s human.”

Her silence on the Rohingya crisis has, some say, betrayed the idea that maybe she is not entirely for the people, but rather is a politician. Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Rohingya activist group Arakan Project, said that Suu Kyi has had to “play the game that both sides have grievances and she cannot take sides. Many people saw that as a way that she cannot speak out because she would lose the support of her Buddhist followers.”

Suu Kyi has herself admitted that she is a politician above all else. “I’m always surprised when people speak as if I’ve just become a politician,” said Suu Kyi in an interview with CNN. “I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party. And if that’s not a politician then I don’t know what is.”

According to Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, Suu Kyi has cleverly used her saintly status to her advantage, manipulating her fame to help Myanmar earn the attention it warranted on the international stage. Drawing a parallel to South Africa, Farmaner said, “It was talking about Nelson Mandela that got people’s interest and got them to take action. Suu Kyi sort of opened the door to Burma [Myanmar] in a way that nobody else could and when it was very, very hard for a long time to get people to pay attention.”

Though perhaps the international community has overlooked Suu Kyi’s questionable leadership tactics. “I think so far she’s got pretty much a clear run in the international community,” said Mathieson. In the eyes of many who are removed from the political happenings in Myanmar, Suu Kyi is still the Nobel Laureate she always was. U.S. President Barack Obama recently referred to her as a “beacon of hope” in Time magazine, writing that he wasstruck immediately by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s quiet dignity.”

But the illusion might be fading. A parallel could be drawn to Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia. Originally hailed as a hero of the people, “Jokowi” has disappointed some and drawn criticism for his failure to deliver on promises concerning corruption and the economy.

Regardless, some say that Suu Kyi and the NLD are setting themselves up for failure due to their centralized style of governing. “I think longer term it’s going to be very hard to get things done …  anything [the ministries] are doing is going to be such a complicated decision-making process,” said Farmaner. “What is more likely to happen is that it’s all going to continue with Aung San Suu Kyi starring as the leader of the NLD, it will be top-down from her office instructing ministries what to do. That’s just an infeasible amount of work – in a normal democracy that would be impossible, let alone a country with all the challenges that Burma faces.”

It is certainly difficult to separate Suu Kyi from the NLD. “When people were voting for the NLD they were voting for Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Farmaner.

But who will take the helm when she’s gone? “Although there is nobody that has that sort of widespread support and character and authority of Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Farmaner, “there are a lot of skilled and ambitious people there who want to be given the opportunity.”

Logan Connor is a Southeast Asia based writer whose stories have been featured in publications such as Southeast Asia Globe, the Washington Post Magazine and TakePart World.