- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Because of her iconic role in pushing for democracy in a once authoritarian country, Aung San Suu Kyi has often been called Myanmar’s Mandela. Now, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to navigate one of the more remarkable democratic transitions in recent memory seems particularly significant.
The similarities between Aung San Suu Kyi’s life and Mandela’s are striking. Both came from relative privilege: He was the son of royals, she is the daughter of the revered Burmese General Aung San. Both became involved in democracy movements and both were jailed — he for 27 years, she for 20. During their respective imprisonments, they both emerged as national heroes, and later as worldwide democracy icons and nobel laureates. Upon release, both drew criticism for embracing (at least politically) their former jailers. Mandela went on to become the president of his country, ushering in democracy and landmark constitutional reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to do the same for Myanmar right now.
Aung San Suu Kyi has credited Mandela for inspiring her own struggle, but she generally refrains from drawing parallels. When she expressed her grief at his death on Thursday, she said simply, "I would like to pay him tribute as a great human being who raised the standard of humanity."
Yet his passing begs questions about her future: At what point will their stories diverge? As a newly minted minister of parliament and presidential hopeful, Aung San Suu Kyi is only beginning her formal political career and is dealing with many of the same challenges that Mandela dealt with more than two decades ago. If her presidential bid is successful (it hinges on the constitution being changed to allow her to run), she will be responsible for reconciling a populace that demands justice for years of repression with the military leaders who caused their suffering — and who still more or less run the country.
Mandela faced a similar dilemma at the beginning of his presidency. His solution, in collaboration with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission that documented the effects of apartheid, administered reparations to victims, and created a mechanism for prosecuting human rights abusers who did not seek amnesty. Reparations and a public reckoning with the crimes of the apartheid regime were to replace formal criminal justice. The commission is widely hailed as a pivotal part of South Africa’s transition and essential to uniting a fractured country.
In Myanmar, U.N. envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana has suggested the establishment of a similar body that would investigate and document abuses committed under the military regime, in an effort to heal old wounds and smooth a bumpy transition. In a general sense, Aung San Suu Kyi is open to the idea, saying she supports "a fact-finding inquiry with accountability, rather than retribution, in mind." But while she seems to welcome the airing of grievances, she is also staunchly opposed to prosecuting the sources of those grievances — Myanmar’s former military rulers. She has stated several times that she will not support the creation of a tribunal in which "those in the previous military regime would be dragged to pay for their sins." She argues that this is all in line with Desmond Tutu’s vision of restorative justice. "What I want most of all is reconciliation and not retribution," Aung San Suu Kyi told the Associated Press in 2012.
But her position on the matter, rather than unite the Burmese, has rubbed many the wrong way. Many of those who have suffered the most at the hands of the country’s military regime — dissidents and ethnic minorities struggling for autonomy — want justice for past abuses, while others accuse her of siding with military at their expense. The Peace Laureate’s appearance at a military parade in March antagonized some of her followers, as did her backing of a controversial mining project. Meanwhile, she has stayed strangely silent on the persecution of the country’s Rohingya minority and other Muslims.
Mandela faced some of the same criticisms when he welcomed members of the previous government into his own administration, choosing to work side by side with the men who jailed him. Now, however, he’s remembered as a genius at "the grand gesture of reconciliation."
It’s worth noting, too, that his own truth commission ultimately fell short of its goals. Reparations were slow in coming and victims were given much less than promised. Many prosecutions were unsuccessful and, as a result, security forces responsible for committing grave abuses were never held accountable for their crimes. In it’s obituary for Mandela, the New York Times wrote that the truth commission, while generally hailed as successful, ultimately "fell short of both truth (white officials and A.N.C. leaders were evasive) and reconciliation (many blacks found that information only fed their anger)."
One wonders what lessons Aung San Suu Kyi must draw from Mandela’s revered, but complicated, legacy. With a truth and reconiliation process all but off the table, how does she plan to heal the country’s wounds?