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Despite Critics, Support for Suu Kyi Strong Before Myanmar Election

Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, greets a patient in a bed at Yangon General Hospital in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 30, 2015.
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, greets a patient in a bed at Yangon General Hospital in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 30, 2015.

Aung San Suu Kyi's star power has fallen among fellow Myanmar politicians critical of her management style and decision-making, and among fans abroad disenchanted with the Nobel Peace laureate's relative silence on human rights abuses. But she's as popular as ever amid the muddy roads and ramshackle huts of her constituency and across much of the country.

In big cities and remote rural corners, the red flag of Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy is much more common than signs of support for the ruling party. She's expected to carry the NLD to victory in parliamentary elections Nov. 8, even though the 70-year-old is barred by the constitution from becoming president and it's unclear who will take the job if her party wins.

An icon

"Mother Suu is our hero. We want her to be our leader,'' said Myint Thein, a 54-year-old rice farmer in a village of Kawhmu township, Suu Kyi's impoverished constituency south of Yangon.

People here shrug their shoulders when asked what Suu Kyi has done for them since they elected her to Parliament in 2012. The tiny village of Wartheinkha, where Myint Thein lives, has no running water or electricity. Most residents are uneducated farmers living in shacks built of bamboo and palm leaves. Yet the people here, like many in Myanmar, see Suu Kyi's rise in politics as part of a national narrative.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of the country's independence hero, Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated by rivals in 1947, when she was just 2. After many years abroad, she returned in 1988 to Myanmar, previously known as Burma, just as an uprising erupted against the military regime. She was thrust into the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, which was brutally crushed by the junta. The military kept her under house arrest for 15 of the next 23 years, which ultimately may have only enhanced her popularity.

"I love her because she is the daughter of our beloved Gen. Aung San, and she sacrificed a lot for this country,'' said another villager, 32-year-old Mya Thandar. "We know that when Mother Suu is in a position of power, she will improve our lives.''


She is called "Mother Suu'' by many who see her as having mothered Myanmar through dark, difficult times at the expense of her own family: a husband, now deceased, and two sons left behind in Britain. She is also known respectfully as "The Lady.''

The junta held her under house arrest for the last two national elections, in 1990 and 2010. The NLD won the first of those, but the military annulled the results and refused to hand over power. Suu Kyi's party boycotted the 2010 election as neither free nor fair, but after the country began a series of political reforms, the NLD took part in the 2012 by-election in which Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat.

The military will retain substantial control over the country even with a sweeping NLD victory next month. The constitution, written by the junta before it ceded power, allocates 25 percent of seats in Parliament to the military. So, for the NLD to be in power, it would have to win 67 percent of the available seats — either by itself or in a coalition — to have an overall simple majority.

Barred from presidency

The 2008 constitution also bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because of a provision viewed as custom-made for her that says anyone whose spouse or children are foreigners cannot become president. Suu Kyi's late husband was British, as are her two sons. Changing that requirement would take 75 percent support from Parliament, meaning it is practically impossible without military support.

Visibly confident heading into the elections, Suu Kyi brushed off the constitutional hurdle in a recent interview, saying she has a plan to lead the country from behind the scenes.

"I've made it quite clear that if the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I'm going to be the leader of that government whether or not I'm the president,'' Suu Kyi told Indian television channel India Today in an interview earlier this month.

In her quest for political power, Suu Kyi has been criticized for sacrificing her principles.

Suu Kyi's many supporters overseas have been dismayed that she has said little about the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have faced decades of persecution and have been treated even worse since the end of the junta. Rioting by Buddhist mobs has left more than 200 dead and driven well over 100,000 Rohingya from their homes. Rohingya were allowed to vote in 2010, but are being denied this year.

Suu Kyi has defended her reaction as a means of political survival in the predominantly Buddhist country, where there is much animosity toward the 1.3 million Rohingya. Despite her Nobel, she says, she is a politician and never sought to be a human rights campaigner.

"What people would like to hear are flaming words of condemnation. And I'm not up for condemnation,'' Suu Kyi said in the India Today interview. "What I am trying to achieve is reconciliation, and we've got to keep to that path because there is a long future ahead of us.''


At home, activists, intellectuals and other former allies have expressed growing disenchantment over Suu Kyi's political choices and an increasingly "authoritarian leadership style,'' Min Zin, a U.S.-based Myanmar expert, wrote recently in an article for Foreign Policy.

Many have criticized Suu Kyi's decision to ally herself with a former foe, Thura Shwe Mann, a reform-minded former army general who was considered a strong candidate for president.

Suu Kyi had banked on the political friendship to help forge a post-election coalition that she hoped might push through reforms to the constitution, analysts say. But the move backfired, angering conservatives in the military establishment and prompting the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party to purge Shwe Mann in August from his position as head of the ruling party.

"The strategy of Aung San Suu Kyi is not working,'' said Kyee Myint, a lawyer and former NLD member who says she has become unpredictable in her pursuit of power. "Because the road she used to walk was straight, everyone could see where she was headed. But now she has deviated from her path.''

Her party also faced criticism after its selection of candidates for the Nov. 8 election, which completely excluded Muslims and largely excluded former political prisoners from a group known as the 88 Generation. The group got its name for organizing the 1988 pro-democracy protests that launched Suu Kyi's political career, and many of its members are among the country's most respected democracy crusaders.

It was one of several moves seen as an attempt by Suu Kyi to prevent competition from rivals. She has also refused to cultivate or name any successor, despite her inability to become president.

"Why has The Lady chosen to burn bridges like this?'' said Min Zin. "She believes she can lead the NLD to a landslide election triumph. She is firmly convinced that she can rely on her personal standing to carry her to victory.''

In a country without opinion polls, voter sentiment is difficult to gauge. More than 6,000 candidates from around 90 political parties are competing for 330 lower house seats, 168 upper house seats and 644 state and regional parliamentary seats.

But Yan Myo Thein, a prominent Yangon-based political commentator, says criticism of Suu Kyi is not shared by many voters.

"The majority of people in Myanmar want change,'' he said. "For those people who want change, The Lady is the only choice.''