Aung San Suu Kyi and dynastic female leaders in Asia

Writer: Professor Mark R THOMPSON

This is an updated version of an article originally published in the East Asia Forum, a major online magazine about current affairs in the region, published on 4 December 2015(

The overwhelming majority won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November Myanmar parliamentary election after more than two and a half decades in which she was largely held under house arrest represents perhaps the world's most extraordinary political turnabout since Nelson Mandela became South Africa's President in 1994 after being jailed for nearly thirty years as a political prisoner.

Although barred from the presidency by constitution drafted during military rule, the NLD controlled parliament elected Suu Kyi's close ally, Htin Kyaw, as President who in turn appointed her as State Counsellor (de facto Prime Minister) and Foreign Secretary in April this year, confirming she remains the most powerful politician in the country.

Suu Kyi's political ascendancy is part of a larger pattern in Asia. She is the daughter of the country's independence leader, Aung San who was murdered by a rival politician in 1947. Suu Kyi is only one of a number women who are the daughters or widows of male leaders, most of whom had also been assassinated while serving as their country's leaders or while heading up the opposition, who headed up pro-democracy groups in several Asian countries and ultimately took political power: the most famous examples are Corazon C. Aquino in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.

A closer look at Myanmar deepens this mystery of Suu Kyi's leadership because, like many other Asian countries, it is often seen to be highly patriarchal. Inadequate employment opportunities as well as limited access to health care and education are among the many problems facing women in the country which received a low ranking (150) in the United Nations Development Programme's Gender-related Development Index (GDI).

The example of Aung San Suu Kyi's case and of other dynastic female leaders in Asia shows that gender stereotyping can sometimes actually become a political advantage. Suu Kyi was widely portrayed as a non-political, virtuous alternative to the country's corrupt, Machiavellian military leaders. Called "Sister Suu" by her supporters (other female leaders have been called "aunts" or "mothers"), Suu Kyi, like other dynastic female leaders, is seen capable of cleansing the soiled public realm with private, familial virtues.

Suu Kyi was chosen as opposition leader because of her dynastic connection. During Myanmar's political crisis following the protests of 1988 she possessed what Max Weber, the great German sociologist, termed "inherited charisma". According to Weber, charisma arises from the perception of a leader's heroics, keen insights, exceptional character, etc. Charisma is inherited when it is successfully passed from one generation to another (in this case from Aung San to his daughter Suu Kyi).

But of course her success as opposition leader and now as the country's "leader above the president" is also due to her own determination and endurance despite years of military repression. As Myanmar's de facto leader she will have to deal with the continued role the military plays in the country's politics, ongoing ethnic-conflict, anti-Muslim chauvinism among radical Buddhist monks and raising standards of living in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. But the fact she has become the most important politician in Myanmar against very long odds is in large part due to the qualities of moral leadership she is seen to have inherited and built upon as a female dynastic leader.

Professor Mark R Thompson is head of the Department of Asian and International Studies (AIS) as well as director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC). He was co-PI of a major German Science Foundation project "Dynastic Female Leaders in Asia". He is co-editor of Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia: Gender, Power and Pedigree (Berlin/London: 2013) and the author of "Democracy with Asian Characteristics," Journal of Asian Studies, 74, no. 4 (November 2015) and "Female Leadership of Democratic Transitions in Asia," Pacific Affairs, 75, no. 4 (Winter 2002-2003), pp. 535-555.