YANGON, Myanmar — In the West, Aung San Suu Ky is nearly sacrosanct. Prim yet defiant, she is an icon of mythological proportions — a righteous Nobel Peace Prize recipient who has suffered through tyranny to lead Myanmar’s oppressed toward a brighter future.
Riding the enormous support she enjoys from abroad, she was released from house arrest in 2010. In 2012 she rose to parliament. She has since announced her intention to run in Myanmar’s first presidential election slated for next year.
Yet despite her iconic status, and despite the impression from abroad that she would easily win a free and fair election, Suu Kyi faces serious challenges.
First, she must erase a clause in Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution that prohibits her ascent to the presidency. But in the long run, she must also work to keep the polish on her freedom fighter persona.
Inside the long-suffering nation formerly known as Burma, her myth sometimes breaks down.
Much has changed in the three years since Suu Kyi, 68, was released from confinement by Myanmar’s totalitarian military regime.
The regime has loosened its stranglehold on the economy, a dysfunctional system that restricted ownership of cars and mobile phones to a tiny elite. The West has scrapped harsh sanctions designed to punish the tyrannical generals. A police state that censored any hint of criticism has been partially dismantled.
Suu Kyi, the face of dissidence, is suddenly everywhere: on T-shirts, billboards, TV stations and bumper stickers. In the police state era, anyone bold enough to brandish her image in public risked beckoning the secret police for an unpleasant late-night visit.
By joining parliament in 2012, and making amends with the generals she long opposed, Suu Kyi has played an indispensable role in Myanmar’s international makeover.
But the woman many call “Aunty Suu” has also descended from her golden perch into the unsavory world of politics. In confinement, she was Mandela-esque. But from the halls of power, she has made choices that have alienated some within Myanmar’s society.
“Throughout the decades of military rule, most narratives of the country presented an almost fairytale picture of one lady fighting valiantly against an evil military regime,” said Richard Horsey, an independent Yangon-based analyst. “The reality was far more complex and people are starting to catch sight of it.”
Even in the eyes of Myanmar’s people, he said, “the gloss is starting to come off.”
Aung San Suu Kyi is by far the most famous living person from Myanmar. Within the country, she is eclipsed only by her father: Aung San, the man credited with liberating his people from British imperial rule.
Suu Kyi remains “incredibly popular” among the nation’s dominant ethnic group, Burmans, according to Horsey. The support, he said, “is not based on a particular political vision or set of policies — she does not really espouse any — but because she is her father’s daughter, because she is revered for standing up to military rule in the past and because of the huge personal sacrifices she has made.”
As for the 2015 election, she benefits from the widely-held view that she is the nation’s rightful leader. After all, she rose to international renown when the military voided a 1990 election that should have sent her to the prime minister’s seat.
Despite the international community’s embrace of Myanmar’s reforms, it’s not yet clear whether the military will let her run.
Suu Kyi is hobbled by a clause in Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution that forbids the presidency to those with foreign children. (Suu Kyi’s two sons from her now-deceased English husband are both British nationals.)
Seemingly designed to stunt Suu Kyi’s rise, the clause specifically states that a president’s spouse or children cannot owe “allegiance to a foreign power.” Her sons — who have spent little time in Myanmar — do not appear ready to forsake their British citizenship.
Suu Kyi is now campaigning to kill off that prohibitive constitutional clause. If she fails, she will surely run regardless.
One potential scenario would see her party, the National League for Democracy, winning a majority and granting her the right to choose the president — even someone outside her party.
Her own party is essentially a one-woman show and there are few viable candidates within her circle. (The current president, a bespectacled ex-general named Thein Sein, belongs to a party stacked with army stalwarts.)
Moreover, as Suu Kyi readies herself for the race, she must also contend with decisions that have eroded her popularity. Criticism swirls around three issues:
- In 2013, she chided peasants who were using their newfound freedoms to oppose the nation’s largest mine, a joint operation between a Chinese weapons firm and Myanmar’s military. Her backing of the mine was interpreted by many as a failure to back fellow dissidents pit against an abusive military.
- Muslims aghast at waves of hyper-patriotic Buddhists torching their neighborhoods are displeased with her failure to forcefully condemn the attackers. Distrust of Muslims runs deep in her core support base: ethnic Burmans.
- Border-dwelling ethnic factions fending off military strikes into their hills are disappointed in Suu Kyi’s meek support for their plight. Aggressively rebuking the military would anger the military establishment that has condoned her ascent and could also risk her support among fellow Burmans.
Suu Kyi’s compromised reputation is not exactly new. Over the past two years, GlobalPost has gathered views on Aung San Suu Kyi from Myanmar’s downtrodden, many of whom would seem likely to be supporters: downtrodden miners, factory hands, guerrilla officers and others. Many were disillusioned.
Here’s a sample:
Ant Maung, 81, a poet opposed to the destruction of several mountains by the nation’s largest mine
“All of the people of this country love Aung San Suu Kyi. They rely on her for their liberation. They have great hope in her... But now they find their hopes aren’t realized... Our country has been in darkness for so many years. We’d hoped to find someone to take us out of the darkness. We thought she was the one.”
Ko Htay, 59, a rogue miner who scavenges toxic dregs outside the mine to smelt low-grade copper
“The government and Aung San Suu Kyi always make deals and work together. Local people have no say in this country’s outcome. Maybe she actually has the will to help people but we’ve seen nothing change on the ground.”
Hawng Dai, 21, former child soldier and recovering heroin addict in Myanmar’s war-torn Kachin State along the Chinese border
“I like Aunty Suu. It’s like we have a real government now. With a real parliament. It looks like she’s is really trying. The elders say she may even have the power to bring in foreign governments to stop the army if they start heavily fighting our people again.”
Aung Kyaw Moe, a part-time, pro bono security guard for Aung San Suu Kyi during boisterous public appearances
“As Aunty Suu’s security, we can’t be democratic like her. Our responsibility is to protect her with our bare hands. We don’t take chances. Sometimes she scolds us and says, ‘Hey, don’t be so rough with them!’ So we might have to push people back and pretend it’s an accident... people get so excited around her. How wonderful it would be to see her as our president!”
Zaw Naing Win, 40, factory worker in the rough industrial zone South Dagon outside Yangon
“It feels like everything’s getting better since the military and Aunty Suu started working hand in hand. We’re still backward compared to the rest of the world. But look at all the phones and cars you see nowadays. This used to be rich people stuff. Now it’s stuff for regular people too.”
Hlaing Inn, 58, owner of a primitive steel factory outside Yangon:
“We like her. We’d like anyone sticking up for us against the army. During the junta times, everything was so damned expensive. More than $1,500 for a mobile phone! Now even I have one. The economy is still horrible. But this combination with the aunty and the president running things is looking good... if only they could just get the power to stay on more than four hours per day.”
Nati “Little King” Wai, a 15-year-old illiterate dockworker in Yangon
“Her? Yeah, I saw her on TV. She’s just some old lady.”
Sanvara, a 54-year-old monk who met with Suu Kyi briefly near villages slated for destruction by the nation’s largest mine
“Aunty Suu says she’s the people’s leader. My heart says that’s no longer true. She belongs to the regime, not the people’s desires.”
The Arakan Rohingya National Organization and the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK — groups devoted to aiding Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya ethnicity — in a joint statement on October 2013
“Her remarks on Burma’s peaceful-living Muslim minority communities are full of prejudice based on fanatical patriotism and Islamophobia ... she tried to defend Buddhist extremism saying that Buddhists in Burma are terrified by ‘global Muslim power’ where there is no such threat form Burma’s numerically small and insignificant Muslim population.”
Col. James Lum Dau, foreign liaison with the Kachin Independence Army, a guerrilla faction at war with Myanmar’s military since the 1960s
“Thein Sein is president. The president’s job is to elevate Aung San Suu Kyi’s status to the outside world. For him to come up, all the generals have to elevate Aung San Suu Kyi first. Then you Americans say, ‘Oh, how great! Economic sanctions must be lifted!’ ... This is all part of their strategy.”
Yazar, a National League for Democracy campaign manager during the 2012 by-election that delivered Suu Kyi to parliament.
“It is more than excitement or surprise or any other emotion that you can express... It’s more like a second religion. And now, as soon as they have a chance, the people worship her.”
Zaw Lin Thu, a 10-year-old boy living in the hardscrabble outskirts of Yangon
“Of course, I know Aunty Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s the lady on all the posters. Doesn’t she sell mobile phones? ... No, sorry. She’s the lady who helps people for free by making phones cheaper.”