Of democracy saviors and the people

A critical Nov. 8 election in Myanmar will provide a lesson for the world: that hopes for democracy should not be tied to one person (Aung San Suu Kyi) but should be embedded in the people and their demands for basic rights.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech during her campaign rally for the general elections Nov. 8

No longer isolated under a dictator’s thumb, Myanmar (Burma) will hold a critical election Nov. 8 that will move it closer to democracy. But the vote may also provide a lesson for the rest of the world.

The lesson could be this: A country’s democracy would be more secure if its celebrity advocate, in this case Aung San Suu Kyi, does not take power.

By definition, a democracy should be driven not by a single savior but by how well a people hold fast to basic principles, such as individual rights and equality before the law. South Africa still struggles to uphold basic freedoms long after Nelson Mandela jumped from democracy activist to being the first president of a multiracial electorate. Similar problems hold true in the Philippines, where Corazon Aquino led a democratic revolution in 1986 and then took power.

For nearly three decades, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been the icon of democracy in Myanmar, especially in the eyes of foreigners if not everyone in her country. She received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Millions of Burmese place their hopes in her, the daughter of the country’s founder, Aung San. When she rose to prominence during anti-dictatorship protests in 1988, people swarmed to her, although she didn’t seek the role at first as an advocate..

While “the Lady,” as she is called, often warns that she is not “a wizard,” massive crowds come to her rallies, many with little understanding of what it takes to run a representative democracy. They tie a dream of democracy to a person. Her immense popularity convinces many not to act on their own to secure basic rights.

What’s more, the other advocates of democracy who question her decisions are seen as challenging her leadership. As a result, the country’s democracy movement has splintered, much to the benefit of the military.

In an odd way then, the military may have done Myanmar a favor by effectively banning her from becoming president (with the excuse that she has children who are foreigners). Her National League for Democracy may win a majority of the legislative seats allocated for civilians. But the military-written Constitution bars her from being the country’s leader.

Aung San Suu Kyi now insists that she will call the shots if her party wins – even if she does not become president. While she certainly deserves credit for her leadership, insights, and sacrifice during years of house arrest, she may want to assume the role of wise counselor rather than the power behind the throne. She would be an even greater hero by releasing power to others and spreading her legitimacy to elected representatives. Other countries on the path to democracy – and celebrity activists like her – would gain from her example.

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