Burma, renamed Myanmar, has been remade so swiftly that, last November, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country. But Myanmar — the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue — is still far from democratic. And the greater international recognition comes at a time of increased interethnic strife.

Alongside Myanmar’s military junta, the major player in the country’s political process is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who now serves as opposition leader in parliament and is increasingly criticized for compromising with the military. Suu Kyi, the daughter of one of Burma’s liberation leaders, has played many roles in the country’s drama. Most notably, she is the internal and international symbol of resistance.

“It was very important to have someone who symbolized to people all over the world what was good and hopeful and promising about the Burmese democracy movement, and someone who could articulate its goals and serve as such a beautiful contrast to the ugliness and evil of the regime that was repressing her, ” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

The optics were optimal in getting the world’s focus, said Malinowski. “Everyone could visualize this — this beautiful, striking, courageous woman who seemingly single-handedly (although not at all true) was standing up to this brutal regime. Presidents and prime ministers … stood up for human rights in Burma not for the country; they felt like they were doing it for Aung San Suu Kyi. And that’s just human. We care more when we can personalize an abstract cause.”

There were practical applications, too. Suu Kyi united the opposition in order to negotiate with the ruling regime in the same way that Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Václav Havel did during their nations’ transitions.

Conversely, many Arab Spring nations lacked a legitimizing figure, which created chaos or, worse, a different kind of authoritarianism, like in Mohammed Morsi’s Egypt.

A galvanizing leader works the other way, too. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela wasn’t the only leftist Latin American regime — neighboring nations such as Bolivia and Ecuador adopted similar stances. But Evo Morales and Rafael Correa didn’t crystallize concerns the same way Chavez did.

“We respond to caricatures,” said Malinowski. “Having a Gadhafi to personalize the evil of the Libyan regime, or an Assad to personalize the Syrian regime, helps explain things to people. In the end, it’s not a person, but a system that we are at war with. But that’s harder to explain in shorthand.”

Chavez wasn’t alone in seeking the limelight, even if the shadow he created revealed dark intentions. Others, however, shun it. Take Russian and China, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that seem to permanently weaken Western efforts to hold rogue regimes accountable.

“Russia is a little more pugnacious in the person of Vladimir Putin, while the Chinese style is to hold back, and sometimes hide behind the Russians, ” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and now a professor and director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard.

The styles may be different, but the outcome often is the same: dictators not held accountable.

But Burns believes it’s getting harder to menace undetected in the modern media age. And in fact, some leaders lacking democratic credentials turn to public relations — or “reputation laundering,” as it’s labeled in London, the capitol of the practice.

To be sure, perceptions are important. But they should be earned, not bought.

“If countries need to hire a PR firm to burnish their image, they start with significant problems, ” Burns said. “If you have a good story to tell, if you’re democratic, if you’re making a positive contribution, you don’t need a public-relations firm.”

Ideally, international efforts to rein in repressive regimes wouldn’t depend on personal attributes of dictators or dissidents. But in a world in which freedom has declined for the seventh consecutive year, according to an annual analysis by Freedom House, personalities can pierce the consciousness of an often inconsistent or even incoherent international community.

Malinowski uses this analogy: “If 10 people are lost in the woods and one of them has a flashlight, you’re more likely to find that one and save him. Is that fair? No. But we try to help who we can in life, and it’s hard to help everybody. I’ll take what I can get. If Aung San Suu Kyi gives Burma an advantage and human rights activists and democracy campaigners can seize upon that opportunity to push out a dictatorship, I’ll take it, and then try to shine a light on countries that don’t have that advantage.”

Malinowski is realistic. He’s also right. But the international community should still strive to alleviate all circumstances similar to Myanmar’s, even if they don’t have a savvy, sympathetic symbol like Aung San Suu Kyi.


The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Join the conversation.