Aung San Suu Kyi: From icon to political player

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to a Copper Mine protester

The woman who was once the world's most famous political prisoner is now wearing the less glamorous mantle of a mere politician.

Aung San Suu Kyi's re-election last weekend as chair of the party she helped found 35 years ago was one of the few certainties in today's Burma.

As one of the party elders said, without her the National League for Democracy is meaningless.

The aura surrounding her is still an extraordinary thing to witness.

Her appearance - and she is always impeccably dressed - at any public event, is akin to watching the arrival of royalty, or a Hollywood superstar.

Even seasoned diplomats are reduced to begging for photos with her like gushing fans.

When she turns her attention to you, her charm and charisma can be overpowering.

It is hard to imagine any other result in the election that is due in three years' time than a resounding victory for the NLD, essentially on the back of the reverence for her.

But preparing her party for government is another matter.

During the long years of her incarceration, the party atrophied.

Many of its members were jailed - and some died in custody.

The NLD was left in the hands of a few elderly loyalists, known as the uncles.

From Our Own Correspondent

Aung San Suu Kyi with miners
  • Insight and analysis from BBC correspondents, journalists and writers from around the world
  • Broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC World Service

It is poorly organised, beset by internal bickering, and desperately short of money.

Last weekend's Congress was supposed to improve this.

But the newly elected central committee is not hugely different to the old one.

There were complaints, too, about the less than democratic way delegates were chosen in some parts of the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi urged the party rank-and-file not to be afraid of her, and to speak out. She says she welcomes criticism.

But that is not easy for anyone confronting this famous and formidable personality, let alone a humble party activist.

And it is worth remembering that she has a track record of turning against those who disagree too vehemently with her.

Her other task this week was to deliver the report of a commission she headed investigating a controversial copper mine.

The huge, open-cast mine west of Mandalay has come to symbolise a new spirit of protest in Burma.

The mine is a joint venture between a big Chinese arms manufacturer and a holding company for the Burmese military, and local people say it is destroying the landscape.

Activists from all over Burma have gone there to support farmers who say their land was unfairly taken.

Start Quote

Suu Kyi can be very stubborn when she is convinced she is right”

End Quote

Last November police tried to clear protesters who were blocking the mine, a botched operation that caused multiple injuries.

Resentment against the military and China, the biggest backer of the old regime, runs very high, and land ownership is one of the most difficult and emotional issues confronting the new government.

So when pushed to start an inquiry, President Thein Sein made the smart decision to hand this hot potato to the country's most popular politician.

It is characteristic of Aung San Suu Kyi that she took on the challenge - and just as characteristic that she has taken the trouble to tour the affected area, delivering a bluntly pragmatic message.

Closing the mine would offend a powerful neighbour, she told them.

Yes, environmental standards and compensation should be improved - but investment like this is what the country needs.

Protests Villagers protested against Aung San Suu Kyi's stand on the copper mine

For a woman accustomed to adulation, the angry heckling she got at the mine must have been an unsettling experience.

I have heard anguished disappointment from former admirers over her refusal to involve herself in the vicious ethnic violence near Burma's border with Bangladesh.

Her repeated expressions of admiration for the army that locked her up for so long have baffled others, although these are actually nothing new - she has always spoken of her fondness for an institution that was founded by her father.

The suspicion is that this one-time icon of principled, non-violent resistance is now guided by political calculation - that she is no longer willing to take a stand on issues which could cost her votes, or which might alienate the military, whose support she will certainly need if she is to fulfil her stated ambition to be Burma's next president.

I do not think she sees it that way.

She presents well-reasoned justifications for the positions she takes, and she's very conscious of the need to forge alliances in a new and still-evolving Parliament.

She certainly holds strong principles. But she can also be very stubborn when she is convinced she is right.

In truth, she is no longer an icon, but a player - a powerful, beguiling and very human one - on Burma's new and unsteady political stage.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and some Thursdays at 11:00

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • MoviesMovie magic

    Tech that reads your desires is helping to increase your odds of producing a hit film, says BBC Future

Programmes

  • Ade Adepitan at the ColosseumThe Travel Show Watch

    The challenge of providing disabled access at Europe’s leading ancient monuments

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.