News that Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s long-time opposition leader, may be able to stand for her country’s presidency in next year’s elections would once have been greeted with elation around the world.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Ms Suu Kyi was considered such an international icon for human rights that when, in 2006, Britain’s New Statesman magazine asked readers to nominate “heroes of our time”, she not only topped the list but received three times as many votes as Nelson Mandela.
The reaction to the latest news has, however, been distinctly muted. The reason is simple. Her refusal to condemn the vicious persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya community – she has even said she doesn’t know if they should be considered citizens – has shocked her admirers. She has revealed herself as the politician she perhaps always was, someone who would rather play to the prejudices of the country’s Buddhist majority than stand up for a people who have been burnt out of their villages, killed, raped, arrested and tortured.
I asked Peter Popham, whose The Lady and the Peacock is the most recent biography of Ms Suu Kyi, whether he thought the condemnation of her fair.
“It’s hard for people to appreciate the pervasive hostility and prejudice of Burmese Buddhists towards Muslims in general and the Rohingya in particular,” he said.
“The guaranteed way for a Burmese to commit political suicide would be to stand up for them. I think it is very unlikely that Suu herself harbours anti-Muslim prejudice. But her single ambition is to attain power so she can bring change to her country. She would much rather shed the support of those in the West who idolised her – support she never desired or sought – than that of the millions of Burmese whose lives she hopes to change if she comes to power.”
Perhaps the mistake lies in elevating political figures to “sainthood” status in the first place. Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been compared to Ms Suu Kyi over his near-endless legal troubles. (The verdict on his last appeal against a conviction for sodomy is due this week.)
To American cheerleaders like former vice president Al Gore and former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Mr Anwar stands for “the values of pluralism, tolerance and freedom that are needed for Malaysia to flourish”, as they once put it in a Wall Street Journal article.
Yet to many this is also a man whose commitment to pluralism is not best demonstrated by his own party, PKR. With Mr Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, as party president and his daughter a vice president, the PKR looks a little too much like a vehicle for his family – a view supported by his failed attempt to shoehorn Ms Wan Azizah into the chief ministership of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, this summer.
Neither are “tolerance and freedom” best exemplified by Mr Anwar’s allies, including an Islamist party, PAS, from whose ranks sprang an ISIL fighter who was declared to be a “martyr” by a leading party member when he died in Syria. A charismatic politician he may be, but on even the most cursory of examinations, Mr Anwar is another reformist “saint” who turns out to have feet of clay.
Of course, there have been truly exceptional leaders, and South Africa’s Mandela is an obvious example. But even he was known for displaying a fierce temper on occasion. As the South Africa commentator and professor at Cape Town University Pierre de Vos put it after his death: “Nelson Mandela was not a saint. We would dishonour his memory if we treated him as if he was one. He was a person of flesh and blood, with his own idiosyncrasies, his own blind spots and weaknesses.”
Placing halos around leaders’ heads loads them with such intolerable weights of expectation that they are doomed to disappoint at the very least, if not to fail outright.
Corazon Aquino will always be remembered as the figurehead of the EDSA Revolution of 1986 that swept away the kleptocratic dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Whether she was up to the task of assuming the presidency and driving the transition to democracy, however, is another matter. The late US academic David Wurfel, an expert on East Asia, tartly concluded not, writing that she “came to office apparently determined to bring Marcos and his cronies to justice and pledged to uphold high standards of honesty for her own administration. Unfortunately she achieved neither goal.”
Joko Widodo, the new president of Indonesia, is another figure in the south-east Asian region who faces a similar problem. His down-to-earth behaviour and marked difference from any of his predecessors and rivals – he was the first serious presidential contender with no links to the old regimes of Suharto and Sukarno – have set the bar so high that unless he possesses miraculous powers to stop volcanoes erupting and floods in the capital, Jakarta, voters are sure to start feeling let down by him in short order.
How to manage unrealistic expectations is something he could discuss with another politician who grew up in Indonesia, Barack Obama. Whether the US president would have anything useful to say on the matter, though, isn’t clear – given that he is the prime example of a politician who could never live up to the superhuman image an adoring public created for him.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant based in Doha and Kuala Lumpur