Saints in politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the dilemmas of political desire

We delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto politicians who have no intention of embodying them.

Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech in Yangon, Myanmar, 17 January 2012. Credit: By Htoo Tay Zar (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent escalation of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar and their subsequent mass flight from the country has triggered a wave of opinion pieces demanding that the head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, speak out to denounce the actions of the army and militant citizens against this Muslim population. Her failure to do so has resulted in escalating calls to revoke the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to her in 1991. In countless articles, radio features and online posts, an international public is shaking its figurative head over the seeming ethical decay of a figure previously imbued with “unquestionable moral authority.”

But there are several reasons for Aung San Suu Kyi not to speak out in the ways we expect her to. None fall into the ‘moral order’ paradigm of how politicians should act if we lived in an ideal world; all of them are in line with the practicalities of real-life politics.

In the case of Myanmar, we are in danger of reducing a complicated reality to an imaginary that we try to bring into being through sheer desire. We attribute the qualities required to make change possible to a person who is then expected to be both saintly and powerful. That person is thus saddled with the impossible task of doing what is morally just, while at the same time acting strategically in order to maintain the power required for any sort of political action.

In fact Aung San Suu Kyi’s saintly status has become a burden to her for at least three reasons. First, her image as a saintly figure consistently intensified during her fifteen years of intermittent house arrest. During this period, all she could do was become the icon against which her political actions are now measured. After the generals released her, she worked her way out of the position of non-engagement and detachment that she had cultivated in isolation, in order to re-enter the realm of power as a successor to her father’s heritage, Bogyoke Aung San, a nationalist general who wrested independence for Burma from the British Empire.

While she had become a symbol of democracy and human rights in the West during the years of her house arrest, her position within the country was different: much of her initial success and her continued reverence derives from her role as the ‘General’s daughter.’ It had been Bogyoke Aung San’s goal to establish a federal state in which ethnic diversity would be recognized. His legacy became her self-imposed burden. She was to bring people back together in harmony, or at least this was what people wanted to believe when they elected her.

Her party, the National League for Democracy or NLD, polled well in many constituencies where ethnic minorities are registered. Among my Muslim, Christian, and Hindu informants, there was no-one who spoke negatively or even critically of “Eme Suu” (‘Mother Suu’), as she is called across ethnic and religious lines. But though mirrored in Western portrayals of her, these characterizations are taken out of context. They belong to an era during which it was easy for her to demand morality and justice in the abstract because she was removed from everyday political action.

Second, her case is further complicated because of the particular relationship she has with the country’s 2008 constitution, which has hindered Aung San Suu Kyi from personally running for President. It is widely assumed that Article 59(f) of the constitution was put in place by the generals to keep her out of power, since it stipulates that those married to foreigners or with children with a different nationality are ineligible for this office—both of which are the case for her. Changing the constitution is thus one of her main objectives.

After her election victory, she began to challenge this regulation by declaring herself to be “above the President.” In April 2016, she was given the title of “State Counsellor” by the Parliament—a new office especially formed for her, with extensive powers that allow her to coordinate the activities of the executive branch as well as Parliament itself. In addition, she is also the acting Foreign Minister and Minister of the President’s Office, a strategic manoeuvre designed to entrench herself at the centre of power that is at odds with both the depiction of her as a mother-figure or an icon of democracy.

Third, Aung San Suu Kyi suffers the fate of female politicians in a more general way. We also find the attribution of saintly or motherly characteristics to Angela Merkel, for example, the pastor’s daughter who is referred to as “Mutti” in German, often mockingly; and to Pakistan’s late Benazir Bhutto, who wrote an autobiography entitled “Daughter of the East.” The putative caring aspect of female politicians lends itself to criticism when it is conflated with ‘sitting things out’ rather than facing up to conflict. This problem of agency (or the apparent lack of it) goes along with a more general patriarchal view of women as passive; in this case, the suggestion that Aung San Suu Kyi has become the generals’ ‘poodle’ who has ‘personally disappointed’ her supporters.

While harsh criticism of her seems entirely justified in the current situation, the way this criticism has been phrased is typical for how women in power are treated. She herself has made it clear that she does “not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons,” yet we continue to measure her actions against an idealized portrayal of women as removed from power and patronage. Rather than being silent, she is, in fact, speaking politically as an active member of an oppressive state apparatus that is entangled with the military. It would be more precise to analyse her current stance of non-intervention—which has always been her main political tool—as a deliberate tactic in line with the pragmatic order of political action.

While she was under house arrest, she espoused her side’s non-violence and ‘detachment.’ Now, in power and under pressure, she is holding forth about the ‘terrorism’ and ‘fake news’ spread by others, or at the very least attributing fault to ‘both sides’—all of which echoes contemporary Western political catchphrases that are not meant to help people understand or argue, but rather serve as a definition of a situation where “rhetoric is the medium, not logic; emotions are the target, not the intellect,” as the political anthropologist F. G. Bailey put it.

This juxtaposition brings out how her positionality shapes her leadership and her appeals to emotion: she is always working with the idea of a polar opposite to her own side. ‘Her side’ used to be the oppressed ‘democratic’ opposition; today, it is the (not very plausibly) oppressed Burmese Buddhist demographic majority that serves as her main powerbase. There is, however, no one to whom she can outsource the saintly qualities that are still expected of her. With the most outspoken branch of the order of the monks increasingly aligning themselves with the government and the military, she remains trapped in her own image of being a saint or a mother figure while being bound to adhere to a constitution she despises.

Aung San Suu Kyi needs to be criticised because she has become complicit in atrocities. But to single her out for blame means to delude ourselves by projecting qualities onto her that she has no intention of embodying. Tellingly, her biographer attributes the final reason why she gave in and accepted the 2008 constitution to another woman who ironically is consistently told to keep quiet: Hillary Clinton in her role as President Obama’s Secretary of State. There is, thus, an unspoken tendency to portray female politicians’ agency or apparent lack thereof in light of their status of being a woman whom we can well imagine as saints, it seems, but have much more difficulty imagining as power players.

When Aung San Suu Kyi won the parliamentary elections in Myanmar in November 2015, the response was overwhelmingly positive among all segments of the population, including members of the Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities. But at a recent conference, a young participant from Mon state broke out in tears when she admitted that she had had so much hope for change after the NLD entered power, and how Aung San Suu Kyi had let them all down since then.

Emotional displays like this need to be taken seriously, but beyond empathy, we need to understand how they come about and persist in the midst of political power games. They are mirrored in Western news coverage, the press releases of international organisations, and discussions on social media. They tell us that apparently, even democracy cannot do without a strong personal identification of the populace with a leader-figure. In the case of Myanmar, however, we are expecting Aung San Suu Kyi to both embody the state and continue to ‘do the right thing.’

What we see here is not the undermining of democracy as such, but rather the increase of a variant that is democratic in form while authoritarian in content and personified in outlook. The dilemma consists of our wish to look into the eyes of great leaders and feel safe in their hands. Not only is the ‘Myanmar Empress’ not wearing any clothes—she is also holding up a mirror. It behooves us to face up to these political realities. We might start by acknowledging that up to now, we have neither come to terms with powerful female politicians nor with our apparent need to project our political desires onto charismatic individuals.

Judith Beyer is Junior Professor of Anthropology at the University of Konstanz in Germany. She specializes in legal and political anthropology and carries out fieldwork in Central Asia and Myanmar. Find out more at and follow her on twitter @JudithBeyer.

Courtesy: Open Democracy



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