When good leaders go bad
Until recently, Aung San Suu Kyi was the closest thing the world had to a “saint of democracy.” Placed under house arrest for over 15 years, at times facing threats to her life, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Despite many offers of compromise, she held her ground—but she also insisted that protest be nonviolent.
Praise for her was near-unanimous. U2 lead singer Bono described her as the “Mandela of our moment” in 2010; when Hillary Clinton visited her the following year, she gushed: “It was like seeing a friend you hadn’t seen for a very long time even though it was our first meeting.” Suu Kyi’s high profile arguably sustained international attention on Myanmar, ultimately leading — or at least contributing — to long-overdue reforms. When her party won in the 2015 general elections, there was much optimism that Myanmar would finally join the “free world,” and that the promise of Myanmar would finally be redeemed.
Today, however, the narrative has changed: Suu Kyi, now the de facto leader of Myanmar, is being condemned for her inaction on the plight of the Rohingya, the stateless, mostly-Muslim minority living in the country’s Rakhine state. The victim is now painted as the oppressor, and people are calling for her Nobel Prize to be revoked. Even Rodrigo Duterte — no friend of human rights advocates — chimed in, chiding her for human rights abuses (although the Philippine government itself — perhaps not keen to invite attention to its own tenuous record — has since taken a passive stance on the matter).
Suu Kyi is not alone in being an admired figure falling out of grace later in their careers. Within the Nobel community, for instance, we’ve had laureates whose actions would earn scorn, like molecular biologist James Watson, the 1962 Physiology or Medicine Prize winner who in his latter years suggested in a newspaper interview that Africans have lower intelligence, and Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state whose role in the Vietnam War cast a shadow on his 1973 Peace Prize.
Among political leaders, there are also many examples. France’s Philippe Pétain was such a hero in World War I that he earned the rare distinction of Maréchal de France, but by the end of World War II, his heroics and old age could only spare him from ignominious execution.
One explanation as to why some exemplary individuals turn for the worse is simply that their roles have changed. Activists need only to hold an unchanging message and match it with a nonhypocritical life. This, of course, is remarkable in itself, which is why they are rightfully regarded as exemplars. When they are handed the reins of government, however, they are presented with impossible tasks, greater scrutiny, the weight of diverse expectations from various groups.
Hence, even those like Barack Obama, who retain their honor intact at the end of their positions of responsibility, are greeted with some disappointment. Tellingly, Obama — like Suu Kyi — was awarded a Nobel Prize; but it only served to remind us of the great expectations placed upon his shoulders.
Then there is also the faltering of the will. In the Philippines, former crusaders against crime are now enablers of it; a human rights lawyer is now disdainful of human rights advocates. As political observers in every country will probably attest to, youthful idealism is no guarantee of lifelong integrity.
In light of the spectacular fallibility and moral frailty of our held-up heroes, one thing we can take away is a greater appreciation of those who consistently held their ground, such as Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi, whose courageous lives continue to speak volumes in our age of uncertainty and unrelenting conflict.
Another is temperance of expectations of what individuals can do. When Suu Kyi compromised with the generals who persecuted her, we hoped that it would usher in a period of prosperity and democracy. But wasn’t it naive to think that way? Perhaps our mistake was to look at her not as the politician she said she was—but as the saint we imagined her to be.
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