Creating a media icon, Burmese style

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One face dominated TV screens, newspaper front pages, and internet sites world over on Saturday: that of Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest after 15 years of incarceration.

One face dominated TV screens, newspaper front pages, and internet sites world over on Saturday: that of Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest after 15 years of incarceration. For the western media this 65-year-old woman, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has come to be seen as a saint-like figure and as Myanmar's only hope. (The ruling military junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising).

Of course, the western democracies' joy over the release of Aung San Suu Kyi is only natural, as no innocent person should be incarcerated for fifteen years, whether in their own home or prison. Yet, politics is one thing and rights campaigning, quite another, although the two may sometimes overlap. Aung San Suu Kyi is a victim of Myanmar's heavy-handed junta, which has been in power since 1962. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won an election in 1990, but the ruling junta refused to concede defeat, instead placing the NLD leader, "Auntie Suu," under house arrest. There she has remained, almost without interruption, to this day.

The truth is that Aung San Suu Kyi is far more popular in the West than at home. She is, indeed, a prominent figure on Myanmar's political scene, but obviously she isn't the only hope the country has. If she were to come to power today, Myanmar's fragile stability would be disrupted, forcing the country and its people to confront a host of unpredictable consequences.

You can draw your own conclusions. On the one hand, Myanmar, with its population of 47 million, boasts an advantageous strategic position at the center of Southeast Asia, bordering all major countries of the region - India, China, Thailand and Laos.

On the other hand, though, Myanmar as part of the Golden Triangle, is now the world's second largest producer of opium poppy, a plant cultivated primarily for heroin production. It will be remembered that the Golden Triangle countries (Myanmar, Laos and Thailand) dominated the global opium market before the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) emerged as the No. 1 opium supplier on the back of Afghan wars.

It is no secret that Myanmar's population includes communities who are very low down the civilization ladder. As recently as the 19th century, local kings would have used human sacrifices as part of their religious practice. And there has been a civil war simmering in the country since the British colonizers took their leave in 1947, pledging statehood to the local ethnic minorities. Curiously, similar promises were also a trigger for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Can this frail lady who has spent so much of her life in isolation from the outside world, come to grips with the problems facing her country? Agreed, it would be hard to picture a human rights activist becoming the leader of a state involved in, say, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The story of Aung San Suu Kyi provides a graphic example of how the modern media can turn an individual into a media-icon.

From the TV networks' perspective, she makes an ideal protagonist for a human rights activist hagiography. This is a woman who, with her excellent English and media-friendly looks tempered with determination, took part in numerous student demonstrations and hunger strikes. And on the other side: a military regime, all parades and soldiers standing in serried ranks, allied to China. That the sympathies of Western TV audiences would lie with her was predictable right from the start.

Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian presidential candidate who set out to take on the country's leftist rebels only to end up in their captivity, was another happy media find. She was kidnapped and held hostage by insurgents of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) movement. Her release was eventually secured with the help of the Colombian army in an operation that put at risk many lives. When Mrs Betancourt regained her freedom, her European fans, who expected the woman to rout the FARC, were amazed to learn that her party had garnered only 2% in national elections.

Maybe it is time we learned to distinguish between television images and the reality. Even Myanmar's junta leaders, until recently dressed in military fatigue, now appear in civilian clothing and sit in the newly-elected parliament. This positive change has become possible largely thanks to the hope associated with Barack Obama's departure from the hard-line course of his predecessor, George W. Bush. But Obama has so far failed to find a good word for Myanmar's recent elections and even accused the country's top military brass of "vote-stealing." It is as if the U.S. leader is unaware of the fact that the latest polls have given Myanmar its first civilian government for fifty years.

It looks like rights campaigning has become sort of a New Age religion for the Western public in recent years - complete with its very own saints (usually campaigners), its own rituals (elections being the main one), and even with its own zealots.

Elections are undoubtedly a great privilege, but there are countries where holding them is likely to prove dangerous for some time to come, even though local human rights advocates aren't cowed by this prospect, and continue to insist on the universal observance of the ritual.

Religion is a force for good. But fanaticism is not, whatever rhetoric it uses, even if it appeals to fundamental values, such as human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti

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