Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader. Photo: Bloomberg

In an essay composed in January 1949, George Orwell wrote that ''saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases''. Gandhi was the subject of Orwell's essay but the sentiment could be applied to the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, who will visit Australia later this month.

Suu Kyi is internationally feted as a saint - the modern embodiment of Gandhi's virtuous commitment to non-violent opposition.

Anecdotally and evidentially, Gandhi has been a role model for Suu Kyi. She not only adopted his strategy of non-violence but also copied his campaign strategy of travelling extensively across the country, speaking to as many audiences as possible in order to achieve democratic change.

Are the characteristics common to both Gandhi and Suu Kyi the result of coincidence or design? It is true that they share many similar circumstances and characteristics. Both spent many years abroad, for example, before returning to the country of their birth.

It could also be said that both were initially underestimated, or used, by their opponents. Orwell suspected Gandhi was used by the British to diminish the popular threat to British rule for, in their eyes, non-violence would never trigger an uprising that would lead to revolution. Suu Kyi was also initially tolerated by the ruling military dictatorship because it believed she would eventually return to the easy life of Oxford, and reveal herself as a puppet of the West and effectively strengthen the regime's impression of durability.

Both Gandhi and Suu Kyi exhibited humility at first glance: Gandhi as the modestly dressed old man with few possessions, Suu Kyi as the woman who constantly described herself as a ''mere housewife''. Behind the humility of these two great figures lies a shrewd judgment of two instinctive politicians. Were they saints, or politicians who appear to be cloaked in virtue?

The tests that need to be applied to Suu Kyi's sainthood are vastly different from those Orwell asked of Gandhi. But before this saint is judged innocent, one feels obliged to ask: has Suu Kyi compromised her values in order to achieve a system of government in Myanmar, democracy, which by nature favours the interests of the majority over minorities? Or has her virtue given way to ambition since she announced she would stand as a candidate for the presidency in the elections in 2015?

If Suu Kyi's virtue is beyond reproach, one is inclined to wonder if it is the nature of democracy, described by Alexis de Tocqueville and others as ''the tyranny of the majority'' that is open to judgment?

The sense that Suu Kyi's political intuition led her to compromise her values is not without evidence. As far back as 1988, she demanded students oppose the regime through non-violent resistance. As a member of parliament who aspires to the presidency, however, she remained silent earlier this year about the escalating violence by Buddhist Myanmarese against Muslims, particularly in places such as Meiktila. Although Suu Kyi has spoken about the sectarian violence, she has said nothing about atrocities against the Rohingya, a group most Myanmarese seem to believe to be an acceptable target for persecution.

Suu Kyi has often said ''you should never let your fear prevent you from doing what is right''. Her silence in response to the atrocities committed against Muslim minorities must, therefore, have been due to something other than fear.

Was it driven by an understanding that speaking out would displease her predominantly Bamar constituency? Democracy is the occasional servant of minority groups. Did this fearless campaigner for democracy decline sainthood so that she can pursue worldly political ambitions?

No one reasonably disputes the remarkable transformation in Myanmar that Suu Kyi has helped achieve. Referring to the success that the strategy of non-violence had achieved in India, Orwell mused that ''it is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again''.

It is precisely this sort of regime Suu Kyi has opposed since 1988. What Suu Kyi has achieved through non-violent protest has been achieved in a context similar to that described by Orwell. This achievement has not only inspired the people of Myanmar but also the people of the world.

Does Suu Kyi feel that her first great objective, of achieving free and fair elections in Myanmar, no longer requires her absolute focus? Does she feel that progress towards a quasi-federal system that protects the rights of the ethnic minorities will certainly be achieved and that she can now shift her attention to a more personal objective: to preside over Myanmar in its first days as a legitimate democracy?

There is much work to do before an acceptable, practical and culturally appropriate form of democracy can be delivered to the people of Myanmar without further bloodshed.

It seems unlikely that the military elite will simply cede the power that it has held for decades. It is too early to assume Suu Kyi will live to see the dreams for her country realised. Or will she live just long enough to see her ''life's work in ruins'', as Gandhi did?

If the elections in 2015 pass without incident and the reform process is allowed to run its course, Orwell's suspicion that non-violent resistance would not succeed against a repugnant regime with a history of eliminating its opponents will be proved wrong. The military junta that ruled Myanmar from 1962 was a regime most odious.

Suu Kyi might possess many of the characteristics one would expect of a saint - virtuous, graceful and steadfast - but she should not be judged as a saint. She should be judged as the politician that she decided to become. This may have been her most courageous act for not everyone would decline the status of a saint.

Judged as a politician, Suu Kyi shares some of the faults of others who operate within a system that does not always encourage a perfect and consistently principled approach.

As Orwell wrote of Gandhi more than half a century ago, however, ''regarded simply as a politician, and compared to other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell [s]he is destined to leave behind''.

  • Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians.