Important Transitions: Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and Hopes for Democracy

Originally posted on December 17, 2013 at:

When a popular democratic leader takes over the reins of government from a previously despotic government, they are transformed from the sacred to the profane. Icons don't govern, people do. They do so as politicians, and both people and politicians are necessarily messy. South Africa's Nelson Mandela escaped much of this by virtue of his singular story, eschewal of political life after only one term, and by attempts to avoid the excesses of politics in favor of moral leadership. Majority rule feels good to be at the helm of, but it is not without cost. Mandela's own voice on the HIV/AIDS crisis that has left South Africa devastated could have been stronger during his term and afterwards. His speech could have been louder regarding the general sexual violence that still plagues South Africa. And the horrors of Winnie Mandela were something he was never entirely rid of. Still, his place in history is secure at this point, regardless of the tint and tilts of time passing. Without his leadership and inspiration, there is no doubt that South Africa would not be looking at the opportunities it now has. Indeed, without Mandela, one can imagine that civil society would have disintegrated in South Africa under warring factions divided by class, race, clan, and loyalty. Mandela was the only one who might have woven these diverse fabrics into the quilt of potential that the country now has to merely achieve.

Burma's Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a good figure to think about in analogy to Mandela. She wasn't on Robben Island, but was greatly isolated in decades of house arrest while Madiba had the solidarity of other prisoners around him. I have always felt that she might be able to do for Burma what Mandela did for the Republic of South Africa. In fact, I predict that she will do just that and, forgive me for hoping so, perhaps even more expertly since she'll have been able to learn more over time and examples of more recent history than the liberation of South Africa allowed then.

What now for Aung San Suu Kyi? She has been freed from house arrest, is free to travel, and has been free to run in (and win) an election for a seat in the new parliament in Burma. It is my hope that she might be able to assume the presidency after the 2015 elections there. Marrying an Englishman might looked on askance where the Brits still flex imperial occupation as in Ireland, but only in Burma does it seem that it actually precludes one from being president.

In 2015, the year of Burma's next major election cycle, Aung San Suu Kyi will be turning 70 years old, a year younger than Hillary Clinton will be in 2016 but a year older than Ronald Reagan was in his first term in office. Burma is a young nation with more than a quarter of the population being under 15 years old and is growing fast. Challenging circumstances enough get more so as the country will inherit a circumstance with widespread unhappiness. There remains considerable disenfranchisement among ethnic minorities, which make up the bulk of the country's borders; inter-religious violence has plagued the nation for the past several years; the entrenchment of military and crony interests is severe; and the basic failures to provide functional infrastructure for education and healthcare is a chronic and worsening concern.

Critics of her and her party (a different issue to some degree) are widespread and acrimonious. How can she fail to speak more strongly on behalf of minority human rights? How can she not oppose economic agreements? How can she not have her party induct younger generations to train for the difficult task of getting things right? How can she not fail to do more for any number of things? As a longtime supporter and an organizer on her behalf, it is very painful to watch. Having said such, it must be more painful for her to hear and is an egregious failure to focus on the real goals. The de facto-regime faction in Burma's parliament still controls virtually all of the country's power internally and externally. Complaining to Aung San Suu Kyi for not magically solving everything ignores the exigent realities. She is a party member and doesn't have the ability to issue edicts that the party must obey or suffer for, albeit she is a powerful one. She is not able to magically transform the existing prejudices of her society without building coalitions from the ground up, and coalitions in politics are not the same thing as coalitions in national symbology. She has journeyed from the impervious status of icon to the rather more troublingly compromising world of politics, and not as a wizard president but as a member of a parliament that is still finding its way in the world. There is evidence aplenty that much of the difficulties that she has faced has either been the result of the length/depth of problems or of the need to move slowly to slow and turn around a lumbering failure of a government. The formerly-military (and still partly so) government may very well have laid some of these traps for her and for her party to fail. Don't buy it. Support her and her candidates in 2015.

If you have supported human rights, if you have supported democracy in Burma, if you believe in the vibrancy and decency of both diversity and the individual, then you must continue to support Aung San Suu Kyi to become the president of the nation that she has given so much for and has fought so long in. You may be able to criticize her behavior on some policies and practices. Indeed, think of how much stronger South Africa might have been if there had been outspoken criticism on things that might have been done better. But make no mistake, South Africa without Mandela would have failed. Burma needs and deserves Aung San Suu Kyi to have its best chance to succeed and prosper. This is not only a question for Burma, but for all of Asia and by extension all the world. We endorse Aung San Suu Kyi for Burma's president in the next election. We hope that every global citizen does too. Aung San Suu Kyi has said herself that she is not a saint, but a politician. If you expect more of her, then give her the power to do more. We feel that she is the best and brightest hope that Burma has had for decades to achieve its deserved status as a human rights defender and diverse democracy. We support her and think you should too.