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Aung San Suu Kyi: powerful icon or powerless leader?

Analysis: Why it isn't necessarily good news that Burma's most famous dissident has been released.

Aung San Suu Kyi Burma Myanmar
A member of Burma's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) stands by a portrait of her at the NLD headquarters in Rangoon on Nov. 12, 2010. (AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — After killing and enslaving ethnic minorities, illegally pursuing nuclear weapons and rigging a parliamentary election, Burma’s ruling junta could use some positive attention.

The pending release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a revered icon of Burma’s democracy struggle, could offer just that. Elected prime minister in 1990, but denied her title and confined off-and-on ever since, the Nobel Peace Laureate is considered a Gandhi-caliber icon.

The U.S., the United Nations and even Burma’s censure-shy neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have all insisted on her release from 15 years of house arrest.

But few believe Suu Kyi, now 65, will be allowed to lead a movement posing any threat to the junta. Her political party has been disbanded. Unlike Burma’s ethnic groups, which fend off the junta with guerrilla armies, Suu Kyi’s followers are weaponless.

“If they’re going to release her, that means the generals are quite confident they’ve secured the vote and feel they can control her,” said Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and founder of The Irrawaddy magazine on Burma affairs. “Even the new generation of army leaders isn’t going to negotiate with her.”

Though Suu Kyi’s faithful are giddy over her possible freedom, pro-democracy groups such as Burma Campaign U.K. warn her release may be a shrewd bid for positive publicity in the wake of a Nov. 7 election widely considered fraudulent.

Some within the resistance fear the fanfare of Suu Kyi’s release will distract from Burma’s deeper problems and relax pressure on the junta. Secret monitors are still sorting out facts from the election, which officially recorded 80 percent of voters choosing the military’s proxy party.

Some Suu Kyi allies inside Burma are openly questioning her role, a taboo within the pro-democracy movement.

“We are neither her subservient followers nor her personal worshippers,” said Khin Maung Swe, head of the new political party National Democratic Force, to the Irrawaddy.

The party largely consists of former members of Suu Kyi’s party who left to compete in the election rather than backing a boycott.

While dismissing her hardline followers as a “personality cult,” Maung Swe is adamant that Suu Kyi is the “leader of the Burmese people” and even offered to disband his party if she desired. (The party won only about 3 percent of available parliamentary seats.)

Inside Burma, where news reports are limited to pro-junta propaganda, Suu Kyi’s profile has suffered from her combined 15 years of confinement. Those born after her 1990 election are unlikely to know the full details of her mistreatment, even though her supporters have struggled to keep her name alive.

“We’ll be interested to see how this young generation reacts to her release,” Aung Zaw said. “They still talk about her, some call her ‘Auntie Suu,’ but there are some questions about her relevancy and popularity.”

Suu Kyi’s freedom will be subject to the whims of Burma’s junta, which last convicted her of crimes stemming from a fanatical U.S. Mormon’s intrusion onto her property in 2009.

Her safety is equally uncertain. An armed attack on her convoy in 2003, during a short-lived release, was officially reported as a civilian riot. Human rights groups believe it was actually a junta-ordered assassination attempt.

Even Suu Kyi herself has at times dampened expectations of her power to change Burma if freed. “My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy,” she said said prior to her last release in 2002. “For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom? That would be the major breakthrough.”

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/asia/101112/aung-san-suu-kyi-burma-myanmar