Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Symbol of Her Nation

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Symbol of Her Nation

The Politics of Charisma

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking to a crowd Aung San Suu Kyi  of Burma/Myanmar, symbol of the nation    

The winds of change are blowing in Asia. The generals ruling Burma have decided to allow more democratic participation and have released many prisoners that were part of the democracy movement. President Obama decided to visit Burma to encourage the growth of these tender shoots of liberty. Most importantly, he wanted to visit Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of the democracy and human rights movement of Burma. Through his visit, President Obama was able to highlight and encourage the accomplishments of this remarkable woman who now sits in the Burmese Parliament along with some members of her democracy party, the NLD.

How can one woman be so important to change in Burma? How can a single person such as a Mandela, a Nehru, or a San Suu Kyi come to symbolize the aspirations of an entire nation? Why does the success or failure of such a figure comes to symbolize the destiny of that nation?

A possible answer is charismatic leadership. In general terms, the population of that country comes to see a power or force in the person of that leader. By rallying around such a leader, more can be accomplished than working under lesser figures or with small groups. The personality of the leader comes to represent the ideals of the nation and he or she is seen as the one person able to help realize the goals of the nation. 

Max Weber, a noted sociologist, defines charismatic leadership in Economy and Society as the phenomenon of the people seeing one leader as particularly capable of bringing about changes everyone desires. That leader is "chosen." That ability to bring about change is an integral part of that chosen leader. According to Weber, that leader is elevated in the minds of the people, becomes the embodiment of all that is good in the national culture and is not often subject to criticism.

The symbolic nature of the charismatic leader is most keenly seen as the struggles and suffering of the leader come to represent the suffering and struggles of the people as a whole. With San Suu Kyi, her dynamic embrace of leadership in the 1988 country-wide protests during the Saffron Revolution raised her to the forefront of people’s minds. She spoke openly and fearlessly about the people’s desire for democratic government and freedom of expression. She gave speeches championing the cause of democracy and reform while the army arrested demonstrators and activists. She personally faced down the rifles of soldiers who were sent to silence her or kill her. The patience and dignity she showed when under house arrest for almost twenty years added to her reputation. She suffered alongside the activists of her movement who underwent arrest, imprisonment and torture.  In a very immediate and physical way, she embodied the aspirations of the people for better government.  In many ways, Aung San Suu Kyi became the symbol of her nation for the Burmese people and the world.

President Obama praised Burma for a "remarkable journey" from dictatorship to the beginnings of democracy and gave much of the credit for this surprising change to the determined leadership of San Suu Kyi. But what was most important was the symbolism of making that statement in the private garden of San Suu Kyi’s estate and finally affectionately embracing San Suu Kyi.

Selected Works on Aung San Suu Kyi, and other historic charismatic leaders:
-- Paul J. Sweeney