Monday’s military coup against Myanmar’s elected – and re-elected – government is a unique test of our democratic principles.
The country’s high profile political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been deposed and detained – again. But this time it’s different.
Rounded up by the military in the early morning darkness, she is once again dependent on the international community. Whether we fight for her freedom will be a test of our fidelity to democracy for better or for worse – personified by a politician who has gone from the very best to exemplifying the worst.
Can a defender of genocidal acts against the Rohingya people still be a democrat worth defending, if only for the sake of the Burmese people?
When I first met Suu Kyi in Yangon (Rangoon), years ago, she was an undisputed global democracy icon, her rhetoric inspirational and her reputation unblemished. She had just been let out from years of house arrest.
At the time, I was struck by her formality, arms crossed protectively across her chest. Her message was unyielding – the military must bend to her indomitable will, because democratic principles could not be compromised.
Within weeks she was back under house arrest, once again martyred by the military, more than ever heir to her father’s legacy. Years later, she finally made her peace with the generals – always reminding them that her late father was one of them – and entered into an opaque power-sharing arrangement that is easier, in retrospect, to see through.
There would be elections, yes, but beneath the veneer of democracy the military maintained its dictatorship. As state counsellor she was Myanmar’s de facto leader, while the military remained the power behind the presidential throne, guaranteed a quota of parliamentary and cabinet seats.
Thus did Suu Kyi share power – and shoulder the blame for the genocidal attacks against Myanmar’s Muslim minority Rohingya refugees. Why did she take the fall so willingly – only to fall from power so readily this week?
Did she defend the indefensible merely because she could not convince the military to cease? Or did she support the inevitable because she could not persuade her own political supporters to desist?
The military called the shots. But the politicians whipped up public antipathy to a persecuted minority.
It is easy for democrats to forget democracy’s built-in shortcomings – the limitations of majority rule in protecting minority rights, the temptations of majoritarianism over pluralism, and the intoxicating power of populism.
We must acknowledge that Myanmar’s latest political experiment has been a democratic disaster, but we dare not disown nor dethrone those who have won legitimate elections, lest we submit by our silence to the alternative of dictatorship.
The world long ago soured on Suu Kyi. Her Nobel Peace Prize is tarnished, her honorary Canadian citizenship has been cancelled, and when I saw her illuminated image at Winnipeg’s Museum for Human Rights I noticed it had gone dark, literally unplugged by the curators.
At a Ryerson Democracy Forum I hosted last week with Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, I asked about his encounters with Suu Kyi in his recent role as a prime ministerial envoy on the Rohingya crisis.
He had talked to her about the allegations of genocide, but she wouldn’t listen and didn’t want to hear of it: “She was extremely defensive (and) said we didn’t know enough about the history,” Rae recounted.
So he’d turned for advice to Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the UN, who explained the mystery of Myanmar’s democracy icon turned military apologist: “Everybody thought that she was a saint,” the world’s one-time top diplomat told Canada’s newest envoy privately.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘You know, Bob, none of us who have been in politics are saints, are we? Well, she’s just a politician,” Annan explained, as the penny dropped for Rae – and, belatedly, the rest of us.
Suu Kyi is no saint, no longer a beacon for democracy, but few politicians are for long. It is easy to rally behind iconic figures, harder still to stick with lost causes or people who have lost their way.
But democratic rights are like civil rights – they demand constancy no matter how inconstant or unpopular the people who fall from grace, be they revered or reviled. We cannot support democracy at its best only to repudiate democracy at its worst – whether in Trump’s America or Suu Kyi’s Myanmar.
It’s worth noting that the military’s pretext for seizing power this week was its claim of election fraud in a vote last November – unproven in Myanmar as it was in America. Like the U.S. insurrection before the inauguration, the coup d’état after Myanmar’s election is a test of our democratic fidelity that we dare not fail – no matter how much Suu Kyi has fallen.
Martin Regg Cohn is a National Affairs writer.