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Fate or fairytale: Can Aung San Suu Kyi become Myanmar’s next president?

An historic election looms. But the Nobel laureate’s presidential ambitions are complicated by legal challenges and her tarnished reputation.

Aung san suu kyi presidential runEnlarge
Supporters surround Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in January 2012, as she registered to run for a parliament seat. (Soe Tan Win/AFP/Getty Images)

YANGON, Myanmar — In the West, Aung San Suu Ky is nearly sacrosanct. Prim yet defiant, she is an icon of mythological proportions — a righteous Nobel Peace Prize recipient who has suffered through tyranny to lead Myanmar’s oppressed toward a brighter future.

Riding the enormous support she enjoys from abroad, she was released from house arrest in 2010. In 2012 she rose to parliament. She has since announced her intention to run in Myanmar’s first presidential election slated for next year.

Yet despite her iconic status, and despite the impression from abroad that she would easily win a free and fair election, Suu Kyi faces serious challenges.

First, she must erase a clause in Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution that prohibits her ascent to the presidency. But in the long run, she must also work to keep the polish on her freedom fighter persona.

Inside the long-suffering nation formerly known as Burma, her myth sometimes breaks down.

Much has changed in the three years since Suu Kyi, 68, was released from confinement by Myanmar’s totalitarian military regime.

The regime has loosened its stranglehold on the economy, a dysfunctional system that restricted ownership of cars and mobile phones to a tiny elite. The West has scrapped harsh sanctions designed to punish the tyrannical generals. A police state that censored any hint of criticism has been partially dismantled.

Suu Kyi, the face of dissidence, is suddenly everywhere: on T-shirts, billboards, TV stations and bumper stickers. In the police state era, anyone bold enough to brandish her image in public risked beckoning the secret police for an unpleasant late-night visit.

By joining parliament in 2012, and making amends with the generals she long opposed, Suu Kyi has played an indispensable role in Myanmar’s international makeover.

But the woman many call “Aunty Suu” has also descended from her golden perch into the unsavory world of politics. In confinement, she was Mandela-esque. But from the halls of power, she has made choices that have alienated some within Myanmar’s society.

“Throughout the decades of military rule, most narratives of the country presented an almost fairytale picture of one lady fighting valiantly against an evil military regime,” said Richard Horsey, an independent Yangon-based analyst. “The reality was far more complex and people are starting to catch sight of it.”

Even in the eyes of Myanmar’s people, he said, “the gloss is starting to come off.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is by far the most famous living person from Myanmar. Within the country, she is eclipsed only by her father: Aung San, the man credited with liberating his people from British imperial rule.

Suu Kyi remains “incredibly popular” among the nation’s dominant ethnic group, Burmans, according to Horsey. The support, he said, “is not based on a particular political vision or set of policies — she does not really espouse any — but because she is her father’s daughter, because she is revered for standing up to military rule in the past and because of the huge personal sacrifices she has made.”

As for the 2015 election, she benefits from the widely-held view that she is the nation’s rightful leader. After all, she rose to international renown when the military voided a 1990 election that should have sent her to the prime minister’s seat.

Despite the international community’s embrace of Myanmar’s reforms, it’s not yet clear whether the military will let her run.

Suu Kyi is hobbled by a clause in Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution that forbids the presidency to those with foreign children. (Suu Kyi’s two sons from her now-deceased English husband are both British nationals.)

Seemingly designed to stunt Suu Kyi’s rise, the clause specifically states that a president’s spouse or children cannot owe “allegiance to a foreign power.” Her sons — who have spent little time in Myanmar — do not appear ready to forsake their British citizenship.

Suu Kyi is now campaigning to kill off that prohibitive constitutional clause. If she fails, she will surely run regardless.

One potential scenario would see her party, the National League for Democracy, winning a majority and granting her the right to choose the president — even someone outside her party.

Her own party is essentially a one-woman show and there are few viable candidates within her circle. (The current president, a bespectacled ex-general named Thein Sein, belongs to a party