Democracy Lab

Why We Give the Lady a Hard Time

An open letter to the critics of our criticism.

As I write this, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is visiting the United States for the first time in more than 40 years. Before this trip, the last time she visited the United States was back in the 1960s, when she spent three years working at the United Nations in New York. Much later, in 1988, she returned to her homeland, where she found herself -- by dint of an illustrious father who had helped to guide Burma to its independence after World War II -- thrust into the leadership of a national movement to resist military dictatorship. What happened next has been recounted many times: state-sponsored harassment; repeated near assassination at the hands of the regime's goons; the death or imprisonment of countless friends and colleagues; long years of house arrest and jail; separation from her family; and her gradual rise to a position as one of the world's most respected dissidents.

Now, thanks to a reform course launched by Burmese President Thein Sein two years ago, the Lady and many other activists have finally found their way back to freedom. For so many years she refused to leave Burma out of the fear that the ruling junta wouldn't let her back in; now those days are over, and she's touring the globe to receive three decades' worth of deferred honors. Back at home she's been elected to a seat in parliament and her image, long banned, now routinely graces the front pages of the papers.

At Foreign Policy, we've been following this extraordinary trajectory with sympathy and respect. (See, for example, this video message she sent us when we chose her as one of our Global Thinkers a few years back.) But lately we've also called her out on a couple of things. And this -- judging by some of the things that people have said to us, or even written (see comments) -- has sometimes prompted the ire of our readers.

Look, let's get one thing straight at the outset: Aung San Suu Kyi is an extraordinary moral exemplar and a remarkable political leader. As she made the rounds here in Washington and New York over the past few days, she reminded us why. Somehow, over these long years of struggle, she has managed to keep her unbending devotion to justice even while demonstrating rare qualities of eloquence, charisma, and self-deprecating charm.

But it's not her unsurpassed ability to woo cynical Washington politicians and pundits that earns our respect. Her long and tortuous non-violent struggle for human rights in Burma undeniably places her in the exalted ranks of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel. She belongs there. She's earned it.

Yet it's also important to remember that none of these people were gods. They all made their mistakes, political as well as personal. None of them should have been off limits to criticism. They've all been subjected to harsh scrutiny by their contemporaries as well as by historians. And this is in the nature of things. It is, in fact, their personal failings and peccadilloes that accentuate their achievements.

Burma's efforts to find its way toward the ranks of the world's open societies is a hugely important but also insanely complex undertaking, replete with tactical dilemmas and difficult compromises. This is precisely why FP's journalists have tried to illuminate it in all of its aspects, noting the dark tones as well as the bright ones.

Aung San Suu Kyi can hardly be exempt from this process. She's a human being, too. And her new role as a democratically elected member of her country's parliament means, more than ever, that she should be subject to the same public scrutiny as any other politician. Indeed, we'd like to feel that we honor her most by holding her to the high public standard of conduct she's established over the past forty years. This is all the more reason to question her actions when they deserve it.

Along the way, it's our Burmese blogger Min Zin -- an alumnus of the 1988 student uprising against the military who has spent the years since then tracking the ins and outs of Burmese politics -- who has asked some of the sharpest questions of all. He has criticized the Lady's high-minded insistence on refusing to take an oath to the current constitution upon entering parliament; as he predicted, she was subsequently compelled to make a humiliating climb-down when this position proved untenable. And he has taken her to task for her failure to set up a proper staff -- a seemingly mundane yet vitally important undertaking for someone who is not only the de facto leader of the parliamentary opposition at a crucial moment in her country's history but also its face to the outside world.

Min Zin was also among the first to note her ambiguous stance on the sectarian conflict in Arakan State, when she declined to defend the racially motivated attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denounced by many chauvinistic Burmese as dark-skinned "immigrants" (even though most of them have lived in the country for generations). He knew that this wouldn't make him any friends among his compatriots, and responses to his post proved him correct. "How dare you criticize Myanmar people's wishes and accuse [Aung San Suu Kyi] and 88 Student leaders as racists for standing up for our country?" was among the mildest of the responses that his commentary evoked.

In a subsequent article, Min Zin showed how the government's embrace of exclusionary rhetoric -- President Thein Sein even called for the wholesale deportation of the Rohingyas -- enabled it to outflank Burma's pro-democracy activists by positioning itself as the defender of "national sovereignty." Given the strength of nationalist feeling among the ethnic Burman majority, there's no question that this has put Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the pro-democracy movement in a delicate political position. Min Zin's point that "sectarian conflict is bad for democracy" strikes me as one that is essential to the future of a liberal political order in Burma.

The sorts of issues we're talking about here need to be addressed. Yet anyone who writes about such topics can count on bearing the brunt of the intense emotions that swirl around them. (Just take a look at the long list of often vicious comments generated by William McGovan's article "Aung San Suu Kyi's Buddhism Problem," not to mention other provocative pieces by Francis Wade, Spike Johnson, and Hanna Hindstrom.) As we see it, such criticism comes with the territory.

Hopefully Aung San Suu Kyi sees it that way too. During one of her Washington appearances she noted that the Burmese people "are having to be taught to ask questions" of their leaders -- apparently not entirely aware of the contradiction the remark implies. (My own limited experience in Burma suggests that ordinary folk are already very good at asking questions of those in power, thank you.) It would, of course, be all too understandable if her long years of persecution have imbued her with the sense that criticism is something that only comes from enemies. Is she now equipped to bear well-intended criticism from her friends? And not only to bear it, but to take it into account?

We'll see. As the government continues its push to loosen restrictions on the press, Burma's leaders -- now including the Lady -- will have to get used to seeing their actions subjected to public scrutiny.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Problem with Patriotism

The dispute over islands in the East China Sea is stirring up nationalist passions in the region. That doesn't bode well for the future of democracy.

The situation in East Asia is tense. Japan and China, two of the most powerful countries in the world, are locked in a bitter dispute over eight tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The volatility of the issue -- compounded by the fact that the waters around the islands are rich in natural resources -- is such that it’s hard to know what will happen next. But there’s one prediction that I would already dare to make. I don’t think that this lingering feud bodes well for the fate of liberal democracy in the region.

The two sides can’t even agree over what the islands are called: They’re known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese, as the Senkakus to the Japanese. The argument over who has ultimate control over them has now boiled over, sending tens of thousands of angry Chinese into the streets in more than 85 cities. Some of those protestors have turned into rioters, attacking Japanese visitors or setting Japanese-operated businesses on fire. The government in Beijing recently dispatched six surveillance ships into Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, prompting fears about a possible clash between the two antagonists. One Chinese newspaper even called for launching nuclear missiles at Japan if it doesn’t concede sovereignty.

The rising tensions have led some to wonder about the possibility of war between the two countries. But even if it doesn’t come to that, the consequences are potentially devastating. Trade between the two countries is now worth some $345 billion a year. Some Japanese factories in China have already cut back on production due to the political instability. Chinese demonstrators have been calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. Anything that slows down the flow of goods and services between the two countries is a bad idea at a time when both are struggling to keep their economies chugging along.

This is not the first dispute over the islands, and in the past Beijing and Tokyo have always managed to pull back from the brink. But this time, matters are complicated by the delicate political situation on both sides of the East China Sea. In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is struggling to break through political gridlock in order to realize his reform agenda, and he can’t afford to be outflanked by the conservative opposition. That’s why he recently instructed the government to purchase three of the islands from their private owners. (The alternative was to cede the ground to the right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who had threatened to purchase the islands in the name of the city, thus scoring points among nationalists.) Noda’s move, which was actually an attempt to defuse the situation, nonetheless poured fuel on the fire of anti-Japan sentiment in China.

The People’s Republic, meanwhile, has problems of its own. The economy is slowing. Discontent over blatant corruption and widening inequality continues. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is preparing for its biggest political transition in more than a decade -- a transition has already been complicated by the scandal surrounding toppled Politburo member Bo Xilai and the recent mysterious disappearance of president-to-be Xi Jinping. There are plenty of rumors swirling around about the growing influence of hard-line nationalists in the military and elsewhere who are eager to impose their own agenda as a new generation of leaders prepares to assume power. If you’re a candidate for one of the top posts, this is not a good time to look like you’re kowtowing to the Japanese.

So why do I think that this won’t help democracy? It’s simple. Unchecked nationalism has a way of rolling over liberal aspirations. That’s because the intense emotions of identity politics have a way of stifling the tolerance that is one of the most fundamental of democratic principles.

The government in Beijing knows this very well. The Communist Party has a long history of stifling the democratic aspirations of its own people with appeals to “patriotism.” Posing as the guardian of Chinese national pride is the most obvious way for the CCP to bolster its own legitimacy. This tactic was recently on vivid display in Hong Kong, the former British colony that joined the People’s Republic in 1997 while retaining its distinct identity and political culture (which includes semi-free elections, independent courts, and a rambunctious press).

Over the years, the people of Hong Kong have fought to preserve some of the things that make the place special -- including a raucous culture of street demonstrations. Just this past summer, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement succeeded in thwarting government plans to introduce a program of Beijing-sponsored “patriotic education” (meaning, specifically, a view of history that glorifies the achievements of the CCP and glosses over the mind-boggling crimes committed in its name). Hong Kong’s democrats rightfully congratulated themselves on a proud assertion of self-determination (though their victory didn’t translate into comparable success in the legislative elections that followed soon thereafter -- and which, after all, aren't really democratic).

All the stranger, then, that some of the very same activists who figured prominently in the movement against patriotic education have now emerged as leaders in the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, a homegrown group committed to defending Chinese sovereignty over the disputed islands. On August 15, a ship carrying several Hong Kong activists landed on the islands, where they unfurled the flags of both the People’s Republic of China (capital: Beijing) and the Republic of China (capital: Taipei). The group included Tsang Kin-Shing, a leading member of Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats party who’s better known in the territory by his nickname “The Bull.” Officers of the Japanese Coast Guard spent hours trying to persuade the protestors to leave, but finally arrested and deported them. Upon their return to Hong Kong, the activists were hailed as heroes. (The Bull, third from left, is shown with his colleagues in the photo above, protesting in front of the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong earlier this week.)

It’s impossible to understand this apparent contradiction without some insight into the roots of Chinese nationalism. For Chinese patriots, resentment of Japan’s past aggression against their country is a touchstone of the cause. Anger over Japan’s perceived inability to acknowledge the scale of the destruction and humiliation it inflicted on the Chinese before and during World War II remains intense. That Tokyo insists on maintaining its claims to the islands merely pours salt into this open wound.

This is why The Bull and his colleagues don’t see any contradiction between their pushback against Beijing at home and their embrace of Beijing’s agenda in their fight for the islands. They stress that they’re asserting the right of “the Chinese people” to sovereignty over the islands, not the claims of the communist government on the mainland (which is why they made a point of holding up the Taiwanese flag as well). Beijing, they say, has been too timid in asserting China’s rights to the islands, so they’ve been compelled to step into the breach. The activists don’t see this as undermining their push for democracy; just the opposite. The crowds of protestors on the streets of the mainland “are organizing today against Japan,” The Bull told me via email. “In the future, they will organize and revolt against the [Chinese Communist] Party.” Perhaps.

For some in Hong Kong, though, the tension is not so easily explained away. Hong Kong bloggers worry that the activists’ antics will undermine support for the democratic parties in the territory and help the “patriotic” (i.e., pro-Beijing) forces. Referring to the flag of the communist mainland, another blogger writing in the same forum cited above notes wryly: “Burning 5-star flag in Hong Kong Island, raising 5-star flag in Diaoyu Islands. Serious split personality disorder!” Some commentators point out that the pro-Beijing chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun Ying, has given his support to the pro-Diaoyu activists. So will Beijing use the Diaoyu issue to drive a wedge into Hong Kong’s already fractious democrats? And what does that mean for the future of dissidents on the mainland?

Patriotism is not inherently bad. And, in fact, many patriotic movements throughout history have gone hand in hand with the development of democratic institutions. But precisely because national feeling conjures up such intense and polarizing emotions, it can be a powerful weapon in the wrong hands. And there’s certainly an argument to be made that allowing for genuinely democratic expression of nationalist sentiment is usually better than artificially suppressing it.

There’s ample evidence that Beijing has been trying to control and channel the anti-Japanese demonstrations to its own ends, a dangerous balancing act that could easily slide out of control. (Beijing has just reinforced that point by announcing a ban on further demonstrations, which might calm things down a bit, at least superficially.) In Japan, meanwhile, the islands dispute threatens to push the country’s politics rightwards, thus polarizing Japan’s relations with its neighbors (all of whom have their own territorial disputes with Tokyo).

One bright spot: The (democratically elected) government in Taiwan, which also claims sovereignty over the Diaoyus yet boasts relatively warm relations with both the mainland and the Japanese, has offered itself as a mediator in the island dispute. That’s an initiative worth pursuing. It just might work. And, if it does, it will have the added benefit of demonstrating to the region that democracies are actually pretty good at finding solutions to problems just like this.

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages