Hannah Beech writes: When Myanmar’s military regime released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, in 2010, she had been the world’s most famous political prisoner for nearly two decades. Within a few weeks, she received a phone call of congratulation from another former political prisoner—Václav Havel, the dissident Czech playwright who, in 1989, had become his country’s first post-Communist leader. The call was the only time they ever spoke directly, but their political relationship had lasted almost as long as her captivity. In 1991, two years into his term as President of Czechoslovakia, Havel had successfully lobbied the Nobel Committee to award its Peace Prize to Suu Kyi in recognition of her leadership of the Burmese pro-democracy movement. When a book of her essays was published, soon afterward, it had an introduction by Havel, who wrote that “she speaks for all of us who search for justice.”
Havel and Suu Kyi were among the many dissidents around the world who, from the mid-eighties to the early nineties, emerged as icons of freedom, often toppling the regimes that had oppressed them. In South Africa, after nearly thirty years in prison, Nelson Mandela negotiated an end to apartheid and then assumed his country’s Presidency. In Warsaw, a shipyard worker named Lech Walesa and a movement called Solidarity swept the Communist government from power. In the Philippines, the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos fell after Corazon Aquino, the widow of an assassinated critic of the regime, took up her husband’s struggle. Democratic movements did not always triumph—the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters near Tiananmen Square is the grimmest example—but, in the last three decades of the century, the number of democracies in the world increased from thirty-one to eighty-one.
Various fates awaited these reformers. Havel and Mandela weathered the inevitable compromises of office with their reputations intact, whereas Walesa, as Poland’s President, became known as an erratic and unreliable leader. But none of them has undergone the kind of unexpected and alarming metamorphosis that Aung San Suu Kyi has. Her moral clarity and graceful bearing long made her a potent symbol of human rights and nonviolence. (There was a 2011 movie based on her life.) But since she became the country’s de-facto leader, in 2016, she has remained impassive in the face of a series of human-rights abuses, most egregiously the brutal oppression of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in the west of the country, near the Bangladesh border. [Continue reading…]