Suu Kyi faces her hour of reckoning

Suu Kyi faces her hour of reckoning

People want to know whether Aung San Suu Kyi can go from faulting woes of Myanmar to fixing them

TURNING POINT: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's democracy movement, campaigns in Mandalay, Myanmar. By inserting herself into politics, Aung San Suu Kyi is being asked to propose solutions to her country's woes rather than merely lament them. NYTWah Thi Ka in Myanmar is a dust-choked village without electricity or running water, where no one has a laptop, where no one uses Facebook or email and where sick residents sometimes die on their way to the nearest hospital because it is too far down a deeply rutted dirt road. It is also ground zero for a new and risky chapter in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, who is transforming herself from dissident to stump politician campaigning for a seat in Parliament.

A global champion of democracy who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize but spent the better part of two decades under house arrest, Suu Kyi is establishing residency here for elections on April 1. Villagers in this once obscure backwater sound as if they had won the lottery.

“I cannot describe how happy I was when I heard the news,” said U Kyaw Win Sein, a rice farmer in Wah Thi Ka who is helping organise the campaign. “Some people said if we can only have the chance to see Mother Suu in person we will be satisfied; we can die in peace.”

It is difficult to overstate Suu Kyi’s popularity in Myanmar, or Burma, as the country is also known. A gathering of her supporters in Mandalay during the first weekend in March resembled a political Woodstock, with tens of thousands of people clogging the streets to greet her motorcade and cramming themselves into a field where she spoke.

Yet by inserting herself into the cut and thrust of Burmese politics, Suu Kyi is placing some of her hard-fought prestige on the line. Increasingly, she is being asked to propose solutions to her country’s woes rather than merely lament them. Suu Kyi is a consummate intellectual who spent the first decades of her life hopping across the globe. Being elected to Parliament – assuming she wins – will be a nuts-and-bolts test of whether she can help bring prosperity to a constituency that gets its water by pulling buckets out of a well.

“There’s an element of gamble and risk for her,” said U Thant Myint-U, the author of several books on Myanmar. “Once she’s won, and pretty much everybody assumes she’ll win, things will be very different,” Thant Myint-U said. “She will have to deal with a range of issues, from the government’s fiscal policies to health care reform to responding to demands from her constituency for electricity, cheaper phones and more jobs.”

Until now, Suu Kyi’s life has often been defined both by her steely defiance of the military junta and by personal tragedies, starting with the assassination of her father, Gen Aung San, the founder of the Burmese army, in 1947 when she was just 2 years old.

Biographers and filmmakers have tended to emphasise the wrenching decisions in her adult life, including her leaving behind her comfortable existence in England to pursue her political struggle for democracy here. Her two children remained in England, and her English husband died of cancer there as she rallied resistance to military rule, which ended last year when a nominally civilian government came to power.

The transition from critic to policymaker has been a tricky turning point for dissidents in other countries. Her career could follow the trajectory of Vaclav Havel, who after his rise as an intellectual and activist against Communist rule was twice elected president of the Czech Republic. Or she could slump like Lech Walesa, the hard-charging hero of the Solidarity labour movement in the waning days of Polish Communism, who alienated allies and voters, flirting with single-digit percentages in opinion polls during his one-term presidency.

One factor for Suu Kyi, 66, is her health. The relentless election campaign is taking its toll. She fell ill during the trip to Mandalay, cut short a speech and was put on a drip by her doctors.

Biographers say she seems to have inherited the dogged personality of her father, who before his assassination was in line to become the first leader of Burma after independence from Britain. Those who have met with Suu Kyi since her release from house arrest in late 2010 say she appears driven to play a substantive role in the country’s political future.

“I don’t think she wants to be perceived only as an icon,” said Larry M Dinger, the head of the US mission here until last August. “She’s a democrat who sees herself as a practical politician.”

During the campaign, she has spoken about the need for more jobs, better health care and education. She emphasises the importance of achieving unity among the country’s many ethnic minorities. But on most issues, Suu Kyi rarely delves into specifics. She jokes in speeches that she does not like to make promises.

Still, Sean Turnell, one of the leading analysts on Myanmar’s economy, described her as “fluent in the language of economics” and well versed on issues like microfinance and property rights.

Rising economies

Myanmar’s economic prospects are uncertain. For a country sandwiched between the rising economies of China and India, poverty is jarringly endemic, especially in rural areas. Oxen pull plows; houses are made of thatch and bamboo.

The constituency where Suu Kyi is running is a two-hour drive south of Yangon, the country’s main city, and is not as underdeveloped as other parts of the country. But in most areas it remains without a sewage system, paved roads or cell phone reception. Residents power light bulbs with car batteries, though there are few cars in sight.

Years of mismanagement by a corrupt and inept military leadership have left Myanmar without a functioning banking and finance system. By entering politics at this delicate stage, Suu Kyi is imparting legitimacy on a government run by the same generals, now retired, whom she battled for two decades. If the reform under way in Myanmar falters, Suu Kyi could be held partly responsible, analysts say.

Even if her party, the National League for Democracy, does well in the April 1 elections, her power in Parliament – numerically, at least – will be slight. The 48 constituencies in contention are just a fraction of the more than 600 seats in Parliament. “At most she’ll end up with a few dozen seats,” Thant Myint-U said.

Her party’s main challenger is the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a proxy party for the former military junta. But there are also signs of fracture and disaffection within her wider democracy movement.

“I respect her. I like her. But she isn’t the leader of all other democratic forces,” said U Kaung Myint Htut, a candidate running against Suu Kyi’s party. “Sometimes we think she is a little self-centred,” he added, accusing her of acting like a queen who does not consult other democracy activists.

Bertil Lintner, one of Suu Kyi’s biographers, predicted future fissures as her party entered the political system. “As long as they were suppressed and almost banned, they remained united,” he said. “Once the pressure comes off, all sorts of conflicts and contradictions will come to the surface.”Whatever bickering exists, it does not seem to be diminishing Suu Kyi’s standing among voters. “I am the head of the village, so it’s hard for me to say this directly,” said U Khin Tint, a local official in her constituency. “But I don’t see any competition.”

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