Last Friday, the UN General Assembly finally voted to condemn the February military coup that ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government. As the resolution called for political detainees to be released and last November’s election result to be respected, it may have seemed like an early birthday present for the country’s former civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who turned 76 on Saturday.
But the junta will take no notice of the UN vote, and Ms Suu Kyi is currently on trial for a variety of charges, ranging from the ridiculous – illegally importing walkie-talkies – to the serious – corruption and sedition. Although it is widely believed that the criminal charges have been concocted by the generals to sideline the country’s best-known freedom fighter, it seems likely she faces years of confinement and being barred from standing for election ever again.
This should not be how Ms Suu Kyi’s political career comes to an end. It is, however, right that it does come to an end. For, while it is earnestly to be hoped that Myanmar does return to a path towards full democracy, bringing back Ms Suu Kyi’s administration would be to ignore its complicity in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya – atrocities that some experts consider amount to genocide, a charge that Ms Suu Kyi travelled to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to deny in 2019.
After she told the world, in the face of all the evidence, that “there will be no tolerance of human rights violations in Rakhine or elsewhere in Myanmar. No stone has been left unturned to make domestic accountability work”, she is now irrevocably tainted. Her country needs a new generation of leaders, young people who are unmarked by the violent Islamophobia that her National League for Democracy party did nothing to fight.
Professor Miemie Winn Byrd of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies has commented that making Ms Suu Kyi the “embodiment” of the movement that called for an end to Myanmar’s decades of military rule “made the process of democratisation more fragile”. But “the lady”, as she is known, cannot escape the blame for that. Famously autocratic and unwilling to delegate, she failed to nurture a class of possible successors, and her strong sense of destiny – she is the daughter of Myanmar’s liberation hero, General Aung San – began to look ever more like entitlement.
But Professor Byrd is also on to something. It was always a mistake to make everything about her: to imagine that if only Ms Suu Kyi came to power then Myanmar would swiftly become a free, liberal democracy, all the country’s long-running ethnic insurgencies would magically end peacefully, and prosperity would return to a state the isolationist generals had done so much to ruin.
It nearly always is a mistake to regard a country’s fate as inexorably tied to the trajectory of one individual. Western leaders commit this reductionist error again and again, though, and never seem to learn their lesson.
How else to explain the complacency of Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the prime movers behind the 2011 intervention in Libya that led to the fall of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi? They appeared to think that once the dictator was toppled, all would be fine. According to a damning report by the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2016, the result instead was “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Qaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIS in north Africa”. Concluded the committee’s chair, Tory MP Crispin Blunt: “We had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences.”
Now, US President Joe Biden appears to have fallen into this trap, too. After meeting his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week, Mr Biden said he had made clear to Mr Putin that if the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny were to die in prison, “the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia”. If Mr Navalny were a US citizen, it might have been understandable for Mr Biden to make such a threat. As he is not, it seemed a remarkable overreach and an act that might be considered intolerable bullying by an imperious hegemon in other circumstances.
More importantly, however, it is astonishing to me that Mr Biden is saying that the welfare of one man – one, moreover, who was associated in the past with the vicious far-right – should have such enormous weight in determining relations between the US and Russia. That strikes me as wholly out of proportion, however sympathetic one might be to Navalny’s plight.
It nearly always is a mistake to regard a country’s fate as inexorably tied to the trajectory of one individual
Of course, sometimes one individual does appear almost superhuman in their ability to effect change. But there are very, very few Nelson Mandelas, and the peaceful transition he helped to bring to South Africa was not truly carried out by him alone, but alongside a large supporting corps, only a few of whom, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are half as well known as Mr Mandela.
And so we come back to Aung San Suu Kyi, the failed role model who is now without honour anywhere except in her own country. For Myanmar to move forward, its people must now recognise her grave fallibility. The country’s future cannot be only about her – and it should never have been in the first place.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National