Icon Under Fire: Burma's Suu Kyi Eyes Presidency Amid Criticism

PHOTO: Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters from her vehicle during her election campaign in Bamaw township, Kachin State, Myanmar, Feb.24, 2012.
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Burma's NLD has long basked in the reflected glory of its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is eyeing the Burmese presidency in 2015. But the party is holding its first-ever conference this week amid growing internal tension and mounting criticism of the pro-democracy icon.

The unassuming, two-storey building on Shwegondaing Road in Yangon, which houses the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters, is a hive of activity. Busloads of tourists pass by, telephones ring off the hook, copy machines hum around the clock, and there's always a meeting taking place. It's never exactly quiet here, but at the moment it's busier than ever. The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, is celebrating its first party conference since its founding in 1988.

By Saturday, the 900 delegates attending the event will have redefined the party's leadership. Now in their 70s and 80s, some of the most senior members of the party's upper ranks will be let go, while new leaders and a Central Committee made up of 120 members will be appointed. The NLD will also be deciding on its strategy.

But for Suu Kyi's party, the biggest opposition party in Burma, even more hinges on the conference. It is planning to prepare the ground for parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015, when it hopes its leader will secure the country's presidency.

It has good reason to be optimistic. Suu Kyi remains hugely popular, and the NLD won 43 of 45 seats in by-elections held in April 2012. Rising from the ashes of the proverbial phoenix, the party is back on Burma's political stage.

Past Triumphs and New Trials Win Tin, a veteran of the pro-freedom and democracy opposition party who was imprisoned by the military junta for 19 years, recalls the NLD's difficult early days. After the uprising spearheaded by monks and students in 1988, he says, the pro-democracy opposition lacked an experienced political leader. "Aung San Suu Kyi and Un Tin Oo and so on were new," he adds, "but we joined together and formed a party and worked out a political agenda and worked for the people and won the 1990 elections."

That 1990 landslide victory was both the biggest triumph and bitterest disappointment in the party's history. The NLD came out of nowhere to win 392 of 492 seats in the People's Assembly, but the result was nullified by the military regime, which had seized power in 1988. Members of the party were outlawed and persecuted.

The election marked the start of an unprecedented era of suffering for the NLD, with many members arrested and tortured. Over the next 21 years, Aung San Suu Kyi -- who became an icon of freedom for the oppressed Burmese people -- was repeatedly sent to jail or put under her house arrest by the generals.

Those days are long over. Reformist President Thein Sein is reinventing the country. And even though there has been recent criticism of the government's treatment of the Rohingya Muslims and the slow progress of peace talks with other ethnic minorities, today's Burma is enjoying a degree of freedom within its borders, a reputation abroad and a new economic dawn that would have seemed unimaginable just two years ago.

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