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Myanmar opposition leader Suu Kyi facing uncertain political future

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for president of her country.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for president of her country.

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — 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.

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 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, British scholar Michael Aris.

Now the Lady, as she became known during 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.

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 question whether she has chosen political expediency over principle, believing she has calibrated her message to appear nonthreatening 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 and have the power to veto amendments to the constitution, which require more than 75 percent 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.

After Myanmar's first short experiment with democracy was ended by a 1962 military coup, she spent most of the ensuing decades of dictatorship in England.

She was in Myanmar, also known as Burma, attending to her ill mother in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of antimilitary 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 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.

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 said. "Her message to the world has lost its weight."

Myanmar opposition leader Suu Kyi facing uncertain political future 11/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 6:19pm]
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