What makes a hero? I've found myself thinking about that a lot lately. Humans seem to have a great hunger for heroes; demand always exceeds the supply. Which is logical enough, when you consider that heroes, by their very definition, are supposed to be exceptional. What's that great line from The Incredibles again? "When everyone's super, no one will be."
Every age complains about its lack of heroes, but once you start looking, it turns out that they are indeed around. Right now, netizens are enthusing over a chance photo that shows a New York City cop making a present of new boots to a homeless man. That the photo went viral almost instantly attests to our need to latch on to people who seem to embody the highest values. (Or just take a look at CNN's popular Heroes program, a celebration of ordinary people who do good deeds.)
Heroes come in different forms. Just take a look at Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of that country's pro-democracy movement, would clearly qualify as a hero in just about anyone's book. She sacrificed a happy life with her own family to the cause of attaining freedom for her people. She has stared down armed soldiers and endured lonely decades of detention. Now, after so many years of struggle, she seems to have been vindicated. The same military government that she opposed for so many years has suddenly changed heart, opening up the once-isolated country to the outside world and awakening hope among its own citizens.
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Yet consider the other Burmese politician that FP named to its 2012 list of 100 Global Thinkers, a group whose achievements we're celebrating this week. Burmese President Thein Sein is not really the kind of person you'd choose as a natural hero. For almost his entire adult life he embodied the very system that Aung San Suu Kyi fought. He spent four decades in the Burmese military, which has run the country since 1962, mostly with unstinting brutality. Thein Sein played a big role in the regime. From 2007 to 2011, he served as prime minister; it was only in 2010, soon before he become president, that he hung up his uniform. It was soon after that he launched the reforms that have led to the release of hundreds of political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to get herself elected to a seat in parliament.
Thein Sein is not a colorful or charismatic personality. He may be the same age as Aung San Suu Kyi, but he comes off -- perhaps by virtue of his long years of service in a tyrannical regime -- as far older and grayer than she. He reads his speeches in a monotone. Given his past, it's doubtful that he will ever have any sort of real rapport with his people. And it would be hard to blame them for it, given the horrors that the Burmese military has visited upon the country's citizenry over the years. (He hasn't been directly implicated in any abuses himself, but he was such a part of the regime that he was also targeted by United States sanctions intended to discipline the Burmese regime. His name was taken off the sanctions list only on September 20 of this year.)
In other words, no one should expect Hollywood to come up with a stirring biopic based on the life of the Burmese president. We like our heroes to have triumphantly linear biographies, tales of ascent against the odds -- and that means that the scriptwriters are out of luck when it comes to someone like Thein Sein. This is a man who achieved all the power that an authoritarian system has to offer -- and then embarked on a course designed to undermine that very power. His friends will accordingly despise him as a traitor, while his foes dismiss him as an opportunist.