The West’s harsh criticism of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi over the Rohingya issue led her to visit Rakhine State on November 2. Surprisingly, she made no comment after the visit to the state that has been the focal point of the ethnic crisis.
How can a once-intimate relationship come to such a point? The New York Times published an article titled “Did the World Get Aung San Suu Kyi Wrong?” on November 1. Interestingly, the key to the answer lies in itself. The writer does not seem to realize that it is not the world but the West that got Suu Kyi wrong. The West doesn’t represent the world, but many Westerners choose to ignore this self-evident fact. Their West-centrism leads to arrogance which inevitably weakens their judgment and insight. So, the appropriate question to propose should be “Does the West get the world wrong?”
In fact, the relationship between the West and Suu Kyi has been asymmetric and unequal from the beginning. The West molded an icon called Suu Kyi using its own canon, values and interest. This icon, which is far removed from the authentic Myanmar leader, was well received by the two sides because of their own interests. Objectively, it is hard for Suu Kyi to grasp the supreme power of the Myanmar government without the influence of politics and media voices of the West. That is the great strength of the West’s soft power. However, when Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party assumed power and started governing the country, the gap between the icon, which represented the West’s principles, expectations and interests, and Suu Kyi herself, which represented the interests of Myanmar, became so wide that the problem can’t be resolved.
The principles of the West are simple and self-centered. The attitude of Westerners is tough and arrogant, unwilling to take into account the feelings and interests of others. But the situation in Myanmar is complex with many ethnic groups existing amid weak economic foundations. The interests of the military and tribal forces need to be balanced. As a responsible and mature politician, Suu Kyi needs to consider issues in a comprehensive and balanced way, so that she has a prudent outlook toward the Rohingya issue. The structural contradictions she and the West have long buried cannot be covered. In fact, the contradictions would have emerged sooner or later even if there was no Rohingya issue. These structural contradictions that can be found widely among Western and developing countries reflect certain limitations of the West’s soft power.
The West gets disappointed because of its unmet expectations, but so will Myanmar. Having suffered from Western sanctions for many years, the Myanmese think they paid a lot for their relationship with the West. As a result, they hold high expectations about easing tensions with the West; but their expectations may be too high.
Shortly after the NLD won the election, I went to Myanmar for an interview and had following impressions. First, many Myanmese think a better relationship with the West will bring a promising future for the country. Second, the whole country has a deep suspicion and hostility toward China. It is not difficult to see an internal link between the two impressions.
However, the thoughts of Westerners reach two extremes. Even the smallest country won’t tie their fate with Westerners’ thought. From the dramatic changes in the West’s attitude, it is easy to see what the West really cares for and what it does not. I believe Myanmar and all other non-Western countries will have their own calm considerations and make their own judgment.