Idealistic advocacy and the reins of power seldom merge well. Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar — the southeast Asian country once known as Burma — serve as the latest illustration of that.
Twenty years ago Suu Kyi, under house arrest in her native Myanmar for her advocacy of democracy in the face of that nation’s military regime, was an international hero. She was awarded the Nobel Prize. U2’s hit song “Walk On” celebrated her willingness to sacrifice everything except “all that you can’t leave behind.”
The West rallied to her cause and suffocated Myanmar’s economy.
Ten years ago the military relented. Suu Kyi was released after 15 years of detention. Five years ago elections were held and a new government was formed, albeit with the military retaining a heavy hand. Suu Kyi became the nation’s effective leader — she didn’t hold formal office, but she controlled the National League for Democracy, the leading non-military party.
This week the military — stung by an election won easily by Suu Kyi’s party — reasserted formal power and clapped Suu Kyi back into house arrest.
The Biden administration quickly threatened to reimpose sanctions, and the Group of Seven economic powers also quickly denounced the coup. But the personal adulation of Suu Kyi, now 75, is missing, and it should not return.
Suu Kyi spent her period of political power temporizing with the military, condoning and even defending a genocidal policy aimed at the Rohingya Muslims minority in the largely Buddhist nation.
The international good will she nurtured as as advocate, she squandered as a politician. And even that didn’t keep the military from moving to snuff out democracy.
Biden, and the rest of the West, is correct to demand that Myanmar’s military step back and allow the duly elected civilian government resume. The West would also be correct to avoid viewing Suu Kyi as an heroic figure this time around. She may, or may not, be the best democracy’s advocates have in Myanmar. She is certainly not worthy of her past veneration.