Since April 2016, when the international human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi became the first democratic leader of Myanmar, activists, journalists, and policymakers around the world have been expressing shock and disappointment at her performance. In addition to raising questions about her leadership on economic and political reforms, which she has largely failed to deliver on, her critics have charged her with turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity committed by the country’s military against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, accused Aung San Suu Kyi of failing to use her stature to speak up against the atrocities. Others have been more direct—an April headline in The Intercept called her an “apologist for genocide against Muslims.”
Such harsh judgments on Aung San Suu Kyi’s integrity and competence have less to do with her leadership and more to do with the undue expectations the international community has placed on her. Likewise, critics often overemphasize the role of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal traits while minimizing the structural and situational factors that have influenced her decisions. Placed in the context of the country’s misunderstood political, historical, and institutional environment, Aung San Suu Kyi is neither the savior she was once assumed to be nor the villain of today’s caricatures.
A TOUGH JOB
In November 2015, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party stormed to power in Myanmar’s first free elections after decades of military rule. It was indeed a moment to celebrate. But the international media, ignoring the long process of state-building and democratization that still lay ahead, sold the NLD’s victory as the final act in a simplistic and overly optimistic narrative of Myanmar’s progress. A January 2016 headline in Time, for instance, celebrated the “Dawning of a New Democratic Era” in Myanmar. A UN video declared simply, “Democracy Wins.”
After coming released dozens of political prisoners and began to pursue cease-fire talks with the nation’s myriad of ethnic militant groups. But the peace process remains short on meaningful dialogue, with some conflicts even intensifying, while military-era freedom of speech restrictions remain in place. On the economic front, crippling U.S. sanctions have been lifted, and Myanmar passed a new investment law designed to open its economy. Yet there are few signs of genuine ground-level development. Foreign direct investment has fallen sharply, corruption remains pervasive, and the NLD’s plans for the economy remain vague. Aung San Suu Kyi is neither the savior she was once assumed to be nor the villain of today’s caricatures.
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