Myanmar studies have always attracted strong views. Particularly since 1988 there has been a history of polemics, biased reporting and emotive commentary. Some scholars and popular pundits have been the victims of harsh personal criticism, often on the basis of political and moral considerations rather than evidence-based analysis.
More recently, the plight of the Rohingyas, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s controversial approach both to the current crisis in Rakhine State and to government more broadly, have aroused similar passions and lent themselves to equally strident reports.
In such a highly charged environment, it is imperative that the facts (as far as they can be discerned, and drawn from reliable sources) are assessed as clearly and objectively as possible. If the past is any guide, however, that will be difficult. The stakes are high, both in terms of the developments currently taking place in Rakhine State, and in Myanmar more broadly.
As so often in the past, those with the strongest views will shout the loudest, making it hard to hear more balanced analytical voices. Inevitably, this will affect popular perceptions of Aung San Suu Kyi and her historical legacy.
Whatever may emerge from the future analysis of modern Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation as a champion of universal human rights has been irreparably damaged. Most history books will probably record her as a fallen star, an idol whose feet were found to have been made of clay. Her extraordinary achievements over decades, both as a prisoner of conscience and an inspiration to millions in Myanmar and elsewhere, will be forever cast in shadow.
However, it is worth keeping in mind that she had so far to fall because the international community raised her up so high. She was rarely judged against the same criteria as other world figures. Granted, there was an element of political opportunism on both sides, but less journalistic hyperbole and more measured scepticism along the way might have resulted in a more balanced view of her natural strengths and weaknesses.
If her many foreign admirers had been able to see her more as a real person, with human failings, and a tough politician with an unblinking eye on the ultimate prize, as much as a democratic icon and reflection of their own ideals, they may not feel quite so angry and disappointed now.
Perhaps George Orwell was right when he wrote in 1949 (about Aung San Suu Kyi’s hero Mahatma Gandhi), “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.”
Please click here to read the full “The fallen idol: Aung San Suu Kyi and the politics of personality” article in ABC Religion and Ethics by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr Andrew Selth.