American idols

By mid-September, more than 400,000 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh to escape state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. They arrived with stories of massacres, torched villages, and atrocities committed by Burmese soldiers. Yet, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, icon of democracy, and former darling of the West, remained silent.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reticence followed her years-long habit of evading questions relating to the Rohingya, denying allegations of ethnic cleansing, and pretending that the Rohingya do not exist as a distinct ethnic group. Finally, under pressure, she delivered a speech in which she questioned the evidence of genocide, covered for Myanmar’s security services, and blamed the conflict on Rohingya insurgents. Despite claiming that Myanmar “does not fear international scrutiny,” the Burmese government has blocked international observers from Rakhine State, where the violence is occurring.

In response, the mostly elite international circles invested in Myanmar’s liberalizing project — and by extension, in Aung San Suu Kyi herself — have formed a global chorus of opprobrium. A Guardian columnist lamented that in Aung San Suu Kyi “we entrusted our hopes” and called for the Nobel committee to strip her of her peace prize. Vox called her speech “disappointing.” Oxford took down her portrait. Commentators regretted that, after her ascent to the pantheon of democratic icons, Aung San Suu Kyi should prove, after all, a mere politician.

The sometimes uncompromising politics of “developing” countries tend to push local leaders into complicated, unsavory positions; the furore surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi is unusual only in its global scale. The nuanced reality of figures like her runs into the idealized caricatures that fans in the West construct around them, which itself is the product of a deep need among Western liberals for post-political heroes who rise above conflict.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s actions are no surprise to anyone familiar with her political context. Although nominally her country’s leader, “the Lady’s” position is tenuous. Her formal office, State Counsellor (roughly equivalent to prime minister), was created for her after the junta-imposed 2008 constitution effectively barred her from running for president. While the military has ceded some power to a civilian government, it retains substantial control by, for example, filling 25 percent of all parliamentary seats. So, though Aung San Suu Kyi remains popular among Burmese voters, her institutional capital is limited. Plus, she already extended herself by brokering peace talks with Myanmar’s various armed ethnic groups, which have battled the Tatmadaw for generations.

Nor is Aung San Suu Kyi likely to rebuke the military on behalf of a Muslim minority group that, for the most part, the country’s Buddhist Bamar majority considers illegitimate interlopers. None of this justifies Aung San Suu Kyi’s prevarication and inaction, but it does explain it.

Stripping away context is an essential step in the manufacture of icons like Aung San Suu Kyi. This is an industry with many players. For example, the public relations firm Edelman played a key role in establishing Malala Yousafzai as a global brand. Western politicians and celebrities write paeans to their developing world counterparts in a reciprocal exchange of legitimacy (see: Bill Clinton’s foreword to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom). The ultimate conferral of legitimacy, a secular canonization, is the Nobel Peace Prize, to which is added a bevy of newly minted “prizes” that international non-profits bestow at fundraising galas. The subjects themselves lean into this process because influence is influence. Perhaps it’s a relief to escape, for a time, the muck of domestic affairs for the scrubbed symbolism of international podiums.

This sets the stage for disillusionment whenever our heroes are found to be complicated, which is always tied to the exigencies of their political reality. Mandela’s complex and evolving position on political violence and affiliation with the South African Communist Party are often papered over, for instance, and new students of South African history are surprised to learn that Mandela supported armed struggle against the apartheid state until the final years of its existence. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the outgoing president of Liberia and Africa’s first female head of state, has been showered in international accolades — and criticized at home for nepotism, corruption, and links to war criminal Charles Taylor. Russia’s Alexei Navalny, who has been cast as an anti-Putin crusader for transparency, has more than his share of skeletons, in the form of racist nationalism.

Complexity is not disqualifying. Mandela’s support for armed struggle was justified, and ignoring this aspect of his legacy sanitizes the history of apartheid, including the long record of attacks on Mandela for his stance on violence. On the other hand, Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to act against an ongoing atrocity or Navalny’s racism does warrant their reassessment.

But the world of conference-room award ceremonies and ghost-written memoirs cannot accommodate nuance because it emerges from conflicts for which there are few easy answers. The people who construct heroes from complicated global figures are akin to those bemoaning partisanship and rancor in their domestic politics. They are heirs to the hoary notion that politics can be rationally ordered and that conflict results from bad actors rather than irreconcilable interests. (Which also explains their love of technocrats and algorithms.) In fact, they are made uncomfortable by zero-sum contests for power — that is, by politics — altogether. They seek a depoliticized, harmonious realm of fake politics, but know their own political scene too well to imagine it at home. So they export an alternative politics of symbols and pronouncements.