Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi has increasingly mounted in recent weeks for her denial and tacit acceptance of mass killings and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, with many even calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. For me, some of the most wrenching criticism to watch has come from advocates that once idolized her. They have been forced to take down posters of her that have stood in their house for decades, or discovered that a prized photograph of them with a human rights hero had suddenly transformed into a ghastly image of them beaming next to an accomplice to crimes against humanity. Even more sadly, this is hardly the first time that actors human rights advocates have championed as the solution to mass atrocities have become perpetrators themselves. This pattern is far too frequent to be ignored, and if we want to move towards the more just world advocates do so genuinely want, we must take its implications seriously.
Like Myanmar, South Sudan presents a case where almost all are deeply disillusioned with the actors advocates once promoted. Few cases have demanded as much attention in mass atrocity prevention circles as South Sudan, and South Sudanese are currently facing mass killings and are on the brink of famine. Yet this time the conflict originates in a 2013 split in the leadership of the SPLM, the organization that American advocates championed for decades, ultimately playing a crucial role in pushing South Sudan to independence.
Such cases stretch quite a bit further than Myanmar and South Sudan. A clear case that comes to mind are the enormous atrocities carried out by Communist governments, with the responses of foreign leftists ranging from disillusionment to denial. More recently, in Syria, Western advocates have often backed opposition forces that have carried out torture and executions, used child soldiers, and maintained uncomfortably close relationships with extremist groups. Paul Kagame, so often praised for bringing the Rwandan genocide to an end and building development success, has masterfully used this political capital to carry out mass killings in the DRC and tighten authoritarianism within Rwanda. And in South Africa, the government officials that oversee massive self-enrichment and shootings of striking miners are often the same ones that heroically fought against apartheid a few decades ago. Indeed, when looking at countries facing violence and authoritarianism, it is quite a bit easier to find ex-heroes than heroes.
For some of these fallen heroes, the abuses were not fully clear until they had taken power. More frequently, however, advocates turned a blind eye to warning signs. The SPLA carried out mass killings throughout their war for independence, including resulting from conflicts between different factions of the independence movement. Similarly, the RPF conducted mass killings prior to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has long held a blind spot towards the abuses of the Rohingya.
In many respects it is easy to understand why this is such an common trap for advocates to fall into. When Omar al-Bashir, Bashar al-Assad, or Burma’s military government are the points of comparison, seemingly minor warning signs seem a lot less severe. And in the face of massive injustices, seeing brave activists sincerely and eloquently denounce injustice is compelling.
Yet time and time again, these same heroes later turn out to be disappointments. If I could draw one conclusion from this pattern it would be this: advocates place far more faith in agency than they do structure, only to be disillusioned when structure has its say. In the face of Myanmar’s military government, the story became Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral righteousness and bravery rather than the political force she represented. Only now, after she has overseen horrific abuses of the Rohingya, do we see that she was an imperfect vessel of democratic progress within a system of institutionally entrenched authoritarianism and exclusion.
In an extremely thoughtful piece, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub write that “Myanmar’s transition to democracy was ascribed to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s heroism. Now its persecution of Rohingya is ascribed to her cowardice. Maybe she was always more a symptom of Myanmar’s best and worst than she was their cause.” Surely the same holds true of the SPLM and Paul Kagame.
As Fisher and Taub argue, it is far easier to see heroes and villains than systems. But this world of heroes and villains begs the questions of why authoritarian countries so often find those who are supposed to be liberators from authoritarianism turn out to be authoritarians themselves, and why war-torn countries so regularly get new leaders just as violent as the old ones, and why previously persecuted minorities, once having gained power, end up persecuting others. Could it be that countries like Myanmar and South Sudan have populations unusually devoid of moral sentiments? And that they have irregularly high concentrations of malicious and villainous people?
Far more likely is that people in these countries, just as we are, are largely products of their environments. While some agency remains, it is nearly impossible to come from a place where violence, abuses of power, and exclusion are norms and emerged without having internalized some of these norms. Even if one were to hold the purest of intentions and consciences, creating change requires gaining power, including all the morally ambiguous trade-offs and hard to swallow compromises that come with it. When the ceiling for our heroes is slowly muddling through towards a better society, overseeing unsavory practices in the process, it is a far shorter fall to a floor of ghastly atrocities.
So when the next generation of heroes comes along, whether that be Lucha’s efforts to finally bring accountability to the DRC or Mohamed Mohamed’s charming story and work to rebuild Somalia, or Raila Odinga’s successful attempt to re-do Kenya’s presidential election due to irregularities, we should be much more cautious. It may very well be that these are heroic individuals using the agency they do have to move towards justice, but that is by no means incompatible with the idea that they could be subject to many of the flaws of their environments and be forced into morally dubious decisions. Or they may simply let us down, and we should remember not to let our hope for change in the face of horrors blind us to the failures of our heroes. But above all we should remember that it isn’t really about them, our selected band of heroes. Young activists that risk death for their ideals are far more compelling than abstract ideas of the rule of law, competent bureaucracies, and the just distribution of political representation, but our heroes are far more likely to let us down than the ideals they represent. And we would be well-served keeping our focus on the slow, messy, and essential work to transition to more just societies rather than chaining ourselves to a flawed group of individuals highly constrained by the injustice we seek to fight.