Aung San Suu Kyi, and Myanmar, Faces an Uncertain Future

The famous former dissident, now in parliament, has her sights set on the presidency. But her support of the military establishment has many wondering whether her voice has lost its moral weight.

Religion Fellows 2013

By Kate Linthicum

November 23, 2013

Also published by the Los Angeles Times

The Lady, uncharacteristically, is late.

But she is unflustered, graciously indulging the pack of photographers that follows as she glides out of her car, up a granite staircase and into her seat in the grand assembly hall.

Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters in Yangon, Myanmar, as she leaves the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party. Suu Kyi has launched an aggressive campaign to change the nation's constitution, which bars her from seeking the presidency.

Nyein Chan Naing. European Pressphoto Agency.

Just in time for roll call, Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived at the parliament. But that doesn't mean Myanmar's most famous face has arrived at real political power — or that anyone knows quite what she would do if she had it.

A Nobel Peace laureate who endured years of house arrest under a harsh military dictatorship before being freed and allowed to run for office as part of a sweeping reform program, Suu Kyi wants to become president but can't. The constitution, written by the former military junta in 2008, bans anyone with a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi has two British sons with her late husband, the British scholar Michael Aris.

Now the Lady, as she became known during the decades when it was unsafe to speak her name, is launching an aggressive campaign to change the charter, taking her message to Western diplomats and her legions of supporters at home. She told a crowd at her party's headquarters recently that until the ban is lifted and the military's powers reduced, "this will be a fake democracy."

Despite strong backing from the United States and the European Union, the battle to change the constitution before the next general election in 2015 could prove the toughest test yet for Suu Kyi, who has faced a rocky road in her transition from prisoner of conscience to party politician.

The leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi has drawn criticism from human rights leaders and ethnic minorities for her silence on a harsh military campaign against armed members of the Kachin ethnic group as well as a recent spate of sectarian violence against the nation's Muslim minority. An editorial published on the Irrawaddy newsmagazine website complained that Suu Kyi had kept herself "aloof from the burning issues that rack the country she hopes one day to lead."

Suu Kyi has said she doesn't want to "add fire" to the conflicts, instead calling for the implementation of the "rule of law" in a country with a notoriously corrupt justice system.

Critics, though, question whether she has chosen political expediency over principle, believing she has calibrated her message to appear non-threatening to the former military leaders who hold the key to her political future.

The international community cheered when President Thein Sein, a former general, came to power 2 1/2 years ago and enacted broad reforms that included releasing political prisoners and relaxing longtime restrictions on the press. The United States and Europe rewarded the former pariah state by dropping economic sanctions.

But despite their democratic pledges, Myanmar's former military leaders have designed a political system that continues to grant them sweeping authority.

A quarter of the parliament seats are set aside for military officers appointed by the military's top commander. They sit together in uniform when the parliament is in session in Naypyidaw, the sprawling new capital built in secret by the former junta, and have the power to veto amendments to the constitution, which require more than 75% of the vote.

The majority of the other parliament members are recently retired military officers aligned with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is led by a former general who has said he wants to replace Thein Sein, 68, who is not expected to seek a second term because of health problems.

The election of Suu Kyi as president would be hugely symbolic. Her father, Aung San, was the hero of Myanmar's independence movement. He was assassinated in 1947, when she was 2 years old.

After Myanmar's first short experiment with democracy was put to an end by a 1962 military coup, Suu Kyi spent most of the ensuing decades of dictatorship living in England.

She was in Myanmar, also known as Burma, attending to her ill mother in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of anti-military protesters took to the streets. The movement needed a figurehead, and Suu Kyi stepped into the role. The party she founded swept a 1990 election, but the results were nullified by the military junta and Suu Kyi was confined to house arrest.

Her release from detention in 2010 was viewed as a sign that Myanmar's former military leaders were serious about change.

At first, Suu Kyi appeared to seek a strategic alliance with her former captors. To the dismay of her pro-democracy allies, she said she was "quite fond" of the army and even appeared in the first row at a televised military parade.

But in recent months, Suu Kyi has sharpened her criticism of Myanmar's reform efforts and the outsized role that the military still plays in this impoverished nation of nearly 60 million sandwiched strategically between India and China.

"She obviously seems to feel that they aren't delivering on what she expected," said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group. He said that in conversations with Suu Kyi, she has expressed concern about the number of political prisoners still being held and the lack of progress on changes to the constitution.

Some say her perceived support of the establishment has cost her crucial political capital and has raised questions about what kind of leader she might be.

"She gave her blessing too easily and in too short of a time," said Khin Ohmar, a pro-democracy activist who spent years living in political exile. "Her message to the world has lost its weight."

Ohmar said she had been disappointed by Suu Kyi's muted reaction to human rights concerns, including the anti-Muslim violence that has taken hundreds of lives. Many have blamed the government for not doing enough to calm religious and ethnic tension, which many believe flared as a result of the loosening of the police state.

Ohmar said that Suu Kyi appeared to have made a political calculation to curry support from the majority Buddhist population, which harbors deep-seated resentment of the Muslim minority.

U Han Thar Myint, a member of the National League for Democracy, said Suu Kyi was simply being diplomatic.

"When you are under detention it is very easy to be idealistic. You need to be idealistic to be able to withstand it," he said at the party's headquarters, a crumbling two-story building in Yangon decorated with dozens of portraits of the Lady. "But if we want to do practical things we must be practical."

He acknowledged that the NLD had been struggling to find its way amid criticism that Suu Kyi has been an aloof leader and slow to modernize the party. But he also pointed to gains. The party has launched health clinics, dug wells and opened schools across the country, he said, and among most people, Suu Kyi remains hugely popular.

One devotee, Minn Minn, left a well-paying job to earn a $100-a-month paycheck as an English teacher at an NLD-run high school in central Yangon, the former capital also known as Rangoon. He described Suu Kyi as the "only" option for Myanmar.

"We know the wrong things but don't know the right things," he said. "What is human rights? What is democracy? I am still learning. We all studied under the military government; we don't know. Most of the public does not understand politics, so she is teaching us."

This article was reported with a grant from the International Reporting Project.