A fallen poster girl for freedom and democracy

She is the de facto ruler of a country thousands of miles away from the Caribbean, or as some would say, more than half way around the world.

However, many Barbadians, especially those who take a keen interest in global affairs, would be familiar with the name, Aung San Suu Kyi, and followed her rise to power in the south-eastern Asian country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, after many years of personal sacrifice and struggle.

When the former British colony was under repressive military rule and Suu Kyi was constantly harassed for being the focus of political opposition as leader of the National League for Democracy and placed under house arrest for 15 years, Western countries, including the United States and Britain, championed her cause. In fact, she was held her up as a poster girl for freedom, democracy and human rights and was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

But less than two years after her party’s rise to power in free elections, even though the former military dictatorship had enacted legislation barring her from formally assuming the presidency, Suu Kyi is showing that when it comes political ruthlessness, she is not fundamentally any different from the military she opposed and is displaying the same dictatorial tendencies. From celebrated poster girl of freedom, democracy and human rights, she has quickly become a pariah with growing calls for her Nobel Prize to be revoked.

What in particular has caused Suu Kyi’s precipitous fall in the eyes of the international community, is what many observers regard as her complicity and indifference to what some organizations are calling ethnic cleansing, bordering on genocide, in which members of the largely dark-skinned Muslim minority ethnic group called the Rohingya are being targetted by the more fair-skinned Buddhist majority.

In the military crackdown, there have been reports of Rohingya villages being burnt, women being raped and being shot with children by soldiers as they flee for their lives. The latest slaughter began after Rohingya militants attacked police stations and a military base in late August and the security forces responded with deadly force. Suu Kyi has not condemned the slaughter.

“This is not the happy ending we were led to expect,” said an insightful recent New York Times article on the situation.

“When Myanmar elected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power in 2015, she was widely portrayed as a sort of political saint, an icon who had endured great suffering to guide her people from dictatorship to democracy.”

Citing a string of other leaders who were also held up by Western governments as saints during their struggle in opposition but who turned out to be villains once in power, the Times noted it was a common story.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela was singled out as a notable exception. The problem lies, the Times said, in Western governments seeing such leaders as “the one-stop-shopping solution to the problems of dictatorship or shaky new democracy” and overlooking their flaws.

Some observers say Suu Kyi’s approach is not altogether surprising as there were warning signs while she was in opposition and immediately after taking power. In a 2013 BBC interview, for example, she had sidestepped the issue of rising violence against the Rohingya by saying that Buddhists had been displaced from their homes and were victims too.

Also, immediately after taking power, she had quickly sidelined many activists and civil society groups that had supported her in the struggle. One former pro-democracy activist, quoted by the Times, said she only listens to persons close to her who make up what he called a “personality cult”. A civil society leader said any person not supporting the Suu Kyi government’s agenda is seen as “the enemy”. Additionally, dozens have been charged under a law restricting criticism of the government, so reminiscent of the imprisonment of dissidents under military rule.

Are there any lessons which we in Barbados and the Caribbean can earn from these faraway experiences? Perhaps, the first lesson is that the price of democracy and freedom is eternal vigilance. For sure, we ought never to take these blessings for granted and need to exercise a more critical eye when it comes to assessing politicians who present themselves to us as saviours but whose agenda really is about nothing more than self-aggrandizement through the acquisition and then ruthless exercise of power.

Thankfully, we in the Caribbean have been generally spared from these ugly realities of political power. However, external developments, such as the current worrying events in Myanmar, do powerfully underscore the danger that lies in being complacent.

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