Have we expected too much from Aung San Suu Kyi?
The West has long had a messiah fantasy: a belief in the power of a charismatic individual to carry the hopes of his or her nation.
This messiah would bring freedom and democracy to previously despotic regimes.
The list is long: Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, in recent times Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
As New York Times reporters Amanda Taub and Max Fisher pointed out in an article last year:
“The simple story of a crusading leader who will transform a nation rarely works out that way.”
They said in Ms Suu Kyi’s case that “the West seemed to overlook signs that she might not be a paragon of liberal democratic values after all”.
The messiah we want?
It tallies with something I was told on a reporting assignment for CNN to Myanmar more than a decade ago.
Someone who had known Ms Suu Kyi since childhood told me emphatically: “She’s not the person you think she is”.
I have recalled those words time and again in the years since.
The world was then in thrall to “The Lady”, as she was known, locked up by the brutal military junta.
I was cynical about this former friend and her motives: she was working with the generals who held Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest.
But now I wonder: was the world seeing something in “The Lady” that just wasn’t there?
Aung San Suu Kyi, I was told, was at heart an ethnic Burman nationalist and a child of the military she would later fight so hard against.
Ms Suu Kyi is the daughter of an army general, a revered pro-independence fighter remembered as “father of the nation”.
Her father, Aung San, was assassinated only months before his nation won its freedom.
Suu Kyi inherited her father’s mantle leading the campaign for democratic reform locked up under house arrest for more than a decade, separated from her husband and children.
She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and likened to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
Suu Kyi’s halo slips
But since being freed and emerging as de-facto leader of Myanmar, Ms Suu Kyi’s halo has slipped.
She’s been accused of failing to use her moral power to stop a military crackdown that has brutalised the Rohingya Muslim minority.
More than half a million people have fled the country as homes and villages have been torched, thousands have been killed.
The United Nations is using words like genocide and ethnic cleansing in what it has called a “scorched earth policy”.
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu — a fellow Nobel laureate — chastised Ms Suu Kyi, saying “if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
There has been little of Mandela’s unifying language.
Mandela believed in the freedom charter, that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it — black and white”.
Myanmar’s bloody history of racial violence
The Rohingya crackdown raises a critical issue: what sort of nation does Myanmar wish to be?
Myanmar watchers Min Zin and Brian Joseph said, in a 2012 edition of the Journal of Democracy, that Myanmar’s history of violent ethnic conflict mean the nation’s “fundamental nature cannot be avoided”.
Myanmar, they wrote, has a choice:
“Is it a Burmese-speaking Buddhist country with a large minority … or is it a multi-ethnic country where everyone has fair claim?”
The main challenge, they said “is less democratisation per se than the building of a state in which democracy can take root and grow”.
The answer to that question has proved beyond Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 2007 the United States Institute of Peace paper on “Building Democracy in Burma” made the case that the country “falls more into the pattern of post-colonial Africa than it does Asia”.
Nearly a century of British rule left the foundations for democracy but Myanmar “like many countries in Africa, wasn’t able to translate these into an enduring foundation for sustainable democratic governance.”
Little power over Myanmar’s military
The country has moved significantly in the decade since that was written, but Myanmar’s constitution still entrenches the military grip on the nation.
The army controls security forces, the police and is allocated a quarter of the seats in parliament.
Ms Suu Kyi does not exercise control over the military commander in chief. Simply: she can’t silence the guns.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s courage and determination has brought her country far, but she is not a messiah.
She may not be able — even indeed inclined — to deliver a democratic, peaceful multi-ethnic future for Myanmar.
The questions we should be asking
It is easy — albeit justified — to single out Ms Suu Kyi, but we are asking the wrong questions.
Does the fault lie with the country itself?
And should we look to ourselves? Has the rest of the world — Australia included — done enough?
By many measurements democracy in the West is in retreat; there is weakening trust in institutions; populism and authoritarianism are on the rise.
Western liberal democracy itself is under siege from a resurgence of tribalism, sectarianism and ethno-nationalism — everything we are seeing playing out in the violence against the Rohingya — right at the time we are telling Myanmar to be more like us.