She endured 15 years of house arrest and numerous threats against her life. In the annals of human rights champions, her name is often mentioned with those of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Now, at age 70, Aung San Suu Kyi is on the cusp of a goal she has pursued most of her adult life – liberating her country, previously known as Burma, from decades of despotic military rule.
Official results Friday show that her National League for Democracy won 369 of 644 seats in the nation’s two houses of Parliament in last Sunday’s voting, a demonstration of how eager Myanmar voters are to show their veneration for the woman they call “Daw Suu.”
And therein lies a problem for Myanmar.
The country’s adulation of Suu Kyi has reached such a high pitch that, according to several analysts, it has created expectations that the Nobel laureate can’t possibly fulfill. Moreover, there is concern that her iconic status has isolated her and could lead her to make rash decisions as she attempts to lead the new government.
“All these congratulatory telegrams will be pouring in from all over the world,” said Khin Zaw Win, a pro-democracy activist who spent 11 years in a Burmese jail for protesting military rule. “All those messages are going to enlarge her sense of self-confidence. . . . That is not a good thing.”
Sandwiched between India and China, Myanmar’s future governance is being watched closely by its neighbors, and also by the United States and other Western countries. President Barack Obama has been a principal promoter of ending Myanmar’s isolation, visiting the country in 2012 and meeting with both Suu Kyi and the current military-backed president, Thein Sein. On Thursday, Obama called Suu Kyi, saying he hoped her victory would lead to peace and prosperity, then he congratulated Thein Sein on the way he handled the election.
History is filled with examples of resistance heroes who, after coming to power, struggled to lead their countries. In Suu Kyi’s case, it’s not at all clear that she can serve as president, even in a behind-the-scenes manner.
She doesn’t have enough time to listen to the people because everyone wants to listen to her.
Ma Thida, former Suu Kyi assistant
In 2008, Myanmar’s military junta enacted a constitution that barred from the presidency anyone who had a foreign spouse or children with foreign passports. That excludes Suu Kyi, whose late husband held a British passport, as do her two sons.
The constitution also reserves a quarter of the seats in Parliament for military officers, making it difficult – if not impossible – for Suu Kyi and her supporters to change the constitution.
During the recent election campaign, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy wrestled with how to deal with the limits on her ascension to power. The quandary: If a large segment of voters were unsure she could legally lead the government, would they avoid the polls and not vote for the NLD?
To remove such doubts, Suu Kyi made clear during the final weeks of the campaign that she should be in charge – no ifs, ands or buts.
“We have said very, very openly that we have someone who is prepared to represent the NLD as president, but I will make all the proper important decisions,” she said during a Nov. 4 press conference in Yangon. When questioned about the legality of such an arrangement, Suu Kyi responded: “The constitution says nothing about someone being ‘above the president.’”
David Steinberg, a specialist on Myanmar and Southeast Asia at Georgetown University in Washington, said those comments are troubling, partly because Suu Kyi campaigned on a theme of instituting the rule of law.
“Whether or not you like the constitution, it is the law,” Steinberg said in a telephone interview. “For her to all of a sudden say she is above the constitution is not a good thing. It runs against what she has said all along.”
Some analysts also fear Suu Kyi’s leadership pledge might prompt the military to intervene, either through court action or an outright coup.
“That is the zillion-dollar question,” said Khin Zaw Win, who previously served in Myanmar’s Health Ministry, adding that the military purposely designed the constitution to prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president.
In 1990, he noted, the military annulled the results of an election in which Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly.
“Any mistake on her part and this could happen again,” said Khin Zaw Win, “The chances are lower, but they are still there.”
The NLD is not a democratic party. It is Suu Kyi and everyone else.
David Stein, Georgetown University
Raised in a family of political royalty, Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a national hero who founded the Burmese army and negotiated the country’s independence from the British. Rivals assassinated Suu Kyi’s father when she was 2 years old. As a young adult, she lived abroad for many years, earning a bachelor’s degree at Oxford in the United Kingdom. Before, she lived in India and Nepal, where her mother, Khin Kyi, served as Burmese ambassador.
By her own account, Suu Kyi was drawn into her country’s democracy movement almost by accident. In 1988, she returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother. Street protests had erupted against the military, and Suu Kyi said she felt compelled to get involved, especially after the junta brutally suppressed the protests.
In 1990, the National League for Democracy stunned the ruling junta by winning nearly 60 percent of the votes in a national election. After the generals annulled the result, they placed her under house arrest. The following year, the Nobel committee award her the peace prize and $1.3 million, which she dedicated to a health and education foundation for the Burmese people.
Because of her house arrest, Suu Kyi was unable to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony. But in 2012, she delivered a Nobel lecture in Oslo, recalling how she coped with the restrictions on her freedom.
“Often during my days of house arrest, it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world,” she said. “There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe.
“What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me.”
People who have worked with Suu Kyi describe her as tireless, fearless, stubborn and often imperial in manner. But there’s hardly anyone who doubts her commitment to her country.
In the late 1990s, when she was free of house arrest and her husband, Michael Aris, was dying of cancer, Suu Kyi chose not to visit him in Britain, fearing the junta would not let her return to Burma. He died at age 53 in 1999, not having seen his wife for more than three years.
Ma Thida, a Burmese writer and former political prisoner, worked with Suu Kyi as a campaign assistant during the 1990 election. In her 1992 book, “The Sunflower” – banned from publication in Myanmar until 1999 – she wrote about the outsized expectations Burmese people have for their leader, describing Suu Kyi as “a prisoner of applause.”
Suu Kyi still is somewhat imprisoned by her iconic status, Ma Thida said in an interview with McClatchy. “She doesn’t have enough time to listen to the people, because everyone wants to listen to her,” the writer said.
That said, Ma Thida believes Suu Kyi would be a much more accessible leader than the current president, Thein Sein, a former general. While Thein Sein has been widely praised for releasing political prisoners and restoring some press freedoms, he has also disfranchised millions of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, including Muslim Rohingyas.
“If she can form a government, the transparency of the executive body will increase,” said Ma Thida. “On that we can be sure.”
During her campaign, Suu Kyi visited all of Myanmar’s far-flung regions, often speaking to huge crowds of adoring supporters. Critics panned her campaign and party for excluding ethnic minorities, particularly Muslims, as candidates. She also angered a leading youth group in Myanmar, Generation 88, by rejecting bids by 17 of its members to run on the NLD ticket. The party announced its decision so late that the 17 were unable to run as independents.
Steinberg, the Georgetown professor, said Suu Kyi’s party likes to style itself as the nation’s best hope for democracy, but it is run in a very top-down fashion.
“The NLD is not a democratic party. It is Suu Kyi and everyone else,” he said. “She has no close advisers and everyone runs around, doing whatever she says. She has expelled those who dare disagree with her.”
Speaking to the media last week, Suu Kyi said she hoped to form a government of national reconciliation. According to the NLD’s Facebook page, she has written to top leaders – military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, President Thein Sein and House Speaker Shwe Mann – and requested a conciliatory meeting.
Both the president and military commander have said they will respect the election result.
Khin Maw Win says he has “grave reservations” that Suu Kyi can form a government where she will delegate authority and let bureaucrats make decisions without approval from “Daw Suu.”
Yet while doubtful about the future, Khin Maw Win acknowledges that Suu Kyi and his native country continue to surprise him.
“We’ve been living under a kleptocracy for so long, you start to lose faith,” he said in an interview the day after the election. “Yesterday, that started to change.”
McClatchy special correspondent Mai Hla Aye contributed reporting from Yangon.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth