Sainthood Must Wait

Aung San Suu Kyi has lost her halo — that circle of unearthly radiance around a person’s head that is the trademark of sainthood — say pundits and analysts.

What they mean is that she is no longer the apostle of democracy that she used to be. In religious art, icons and halos go together. No longer so in her case. In the eyes of people who are disappointed with her recent assertions and political behavior, she’s been decanonized.

But who canonized her in the first place? The very same people who are now surprised to find out that she is, like all of us, made of clay.

That dismay is understandable. The daughter of Myanmar’s martyred founding father, she spent most of her life in nonviolent defiance of Myanmar’s military establishment. With her election as national leader dashed by force of arms in 1990, she could have carried out her campaign for democracy in safe exile but she chose to remain in the country. She endured house arrest from mid-1989 to 2009 — 20 years, 13 of them in isolation.

Finally freed by a nominally civilian government that wanted her to earn world respect and to serve as Asean chair in 2014, she led her party to a landslide victory in last year’s contest for 45 seats in parliament.

Intellectually tough as nails, brave in the face of physical danger, she is of heroic stuff. But she has also made the transition from outsider to politician-in-office with an eye to national leadership. The house of politics is not a clean, well-lighted place.

Recently, she was the VIP guest at a televised military parade, something preposterous at an earlier time. To many, that was a betrayal of the democracy she fought for. Her defenders say she was there in the spirit of military-civilian reconciliation. Her father, after all, was founder of the country’s military. Thus, more than once she had said she was “very fond” of the military.

But to some of her followers, that was playing with fire.

Last year, called upon to exercise moral leadership by speaking out against the grinding persecution of the Muslim Rohingya in Buddhist-dominated Rakhine State, she sidestepped. She said she wouldn’t take sides.

Last month, when riots flared in central Myanmar, she upbraided the police for their inaction but said nothing to condemn the anti-Muslim thrust of the violence.

Also last month, she led a parliamentary inquiry that recommended the continuation of a copper mining project co-owned by a Chinese company and the Myanmar military. This was in spite of the objections from hundreds of adversely affected farmers and local residents, and the environmental concerns of civil society.

Confronted by the farmers when she went to their villages, she bluntly asked them to sacrifice their interests “for the greater good.” They shouted her down.

Maybe she really can’t see she’s on the wrong side of this controversy. And this won’t be the last she makes decisions unexpected of her, or she will fence-sit, as she struggles for political survival. She can’t remain a force for democracy if she makes moves now that can kill her political career.

At the moment realpolitik trumps statesmanship. A statesman, they say, is a politician who’s been dead 10 years. First she must survive politically. At any rate, moral positions of effective leaders evolve as they are able to shape their political environment.

It took President Obama many months before he came out for gay marriage. It took a long time before Abraham Lincoln could come out straightforward for the emancipation of slaves.

Similarly, I think, the Lady’s position on issues can evolve as she is able to ensure her political survival. She needs more time.

For now she must do without the halo of a sainthood that cumbers her quest.

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