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

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Suu Kyi and her followers have used the time to rebuild their party. New NLD offices were opened across the country, from Yangon to Mandalay. But wide-scale efforts to boost membership have met with little success. Ahead of the 2012 by-elections, the NLD announced it was aiming to recruit one million new members. But according to the Mizzima news service, only 50,000 of the application forms distributed by the party were returned. Reliable figures on the NLD's current membership are not available.

Cracks are also beginning to show within the party. In December 2012, the Myanmar Times reported that 500 frustrated NLD members in Pathein, Burma's fourth-largest city, had abandoned the party, accusing its leaders of being undemocratic and authoritarian. There is a growing exodus from the party in other regions, too. The complaints are always the same, ranging from autocratic leadership to a lack of transparency.

Moreover, the party conference was originally scheduled for February but had to be postponed because of disputes over the selection of delegates.

"The party's theme is fairness and peace, but there is no fairness in the party," says Ko Ko Naing, a spokesperson for the dissenters.

Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a political think tank aligned with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, reached a similar conclusion in a 2012 analysis of the NLD. "(The party) does not yet have clear internal procedures for determining political posts or nominating candidates. The party leader has the last word," it found. For now, it continued, the NLD "is relying mainly on the myth of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Criticism and Rebuttals

Dissatisfaction with Suu Kyi's political course is also growing. At an NLD fundraiser in December, she accepted donations from shady business tycoons with ties to the former military regime. According to media reports, the donations totaled over $240,000.

"Those who are considered cronies have supported the social activities of the NLD and others. What is wrong with that?" asked Suu Kyi in response to criticism.

NLD veterans are also unhappy at seeing Suu Kyi reach out to military leaders. She has repeatedly expressed her affection for the military, saying that she is after all the daughter of General Aung San, the leader of Burma's struggle for independence, who is still revered by the Burmese people.

Significantly, Suu Kyi needs the army to be on her side if she is to succeed in pushing for the constitutional change that will allow her to run for president. As a mother of two children with British passports, she is currently not allowed to run for the country's highest office.

Her detractors have also criticized her silence regarding the recent violence against Rohingya Muslims as well the ongoing conflict between the state and the Kachin ethnic minority in northern Burma.

For the time being, however, Suu Kyi remains a media darling. Ko Ahr Mahn, manager of the weekly magazine 7DayNews, frankly admits that "maybe some (media) publish only positive news about Suu Kyi." When Min Zin, who took part as a student in the 1988 protests, openly criticized her silence on the Rohingyas, her friendship with the army and the spiraling tensions within the NLD and between the party and local journalists, he was attacked online. "How dare you attack Suu Kyi?" was the general gist.

She seems to have gotten the message. In the past, she said ahead of the party conference, the members of the Central Committee were not always democratically elected due to the difficult political climate. But this would not happen in Yangon this week, she said, when everyone would rise to the challenge of a free and democratic vote.

However, she has still kept silent on the issue of the Rohingya Muslims and continues to nurture good relations with the generals. She knows all too well that she needs their help to become president.

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