YANGON, Myanmar – Newly transformed from imprisoned icon during a long struggle against repression in Myanmar to a key political actor, Aung San Suu Kyi is now on course to take a seat in parliament for the first time.
It is a remarkable turnaround for the Nobel laureate, who burst onto Myanmar’s political scene almost by accident in the late 1980s but was kept as a prisoner in her own home by the generals for most of the past 22 years.
Before her release from house arrest in November 2010, the figure of the recent film “The Lady”, shut away and silent in her crumbling lakeside mansion, was a powerful symbol of a nation laboring under the yoke of a junta.
But as Myanmar’s nominally civilian government seeks a thaw in relations with the West and an easing of economic sanctions, the 66-year-old opposition leader now finds herself in a position of extraordinary influence.
She has drawn huge crowds on the campaign trail as she runs for a seat in parliament for the first time in Sunday’s by-elections.
If she wins, as few doubt she will if the vote is relatively fair, Suu Kyi will have an unprecedented opportunity to help shape the country’s legislative agenda, even though the military-backed ruling party will retain its majority.
“She’ll be able to advocate reforms and changes much more openly,” said Trevor Wilson, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.
But the pro-democracy champion will need to cooperate to some extent with other political parties as well as unelected military representatives who hold one quarter of the seats in parliament, he said.
“She’s not going to be able to take an extreme revolutionary stance. She’s going to have to, in some ways, take a fairly pragmatic and even cooperative approach,” added Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar.
There has been speculation that Suu Kyi might be offered a role in the army-backed government, although she has ruled out taking a ministerial post because she would be required to give up her seat in parliament.
“I have no intention of leaving the parliament to which I have tried so hard to get into,” she told a news conference on Friday.
But she indicated that she might be willing to take on some kind of other role, possibly to help resolve the country’s ethnic conflicts.
“I’d like to be one of those who are working to unite this country… in a way in which all the ethnic nationalities would be able to live peacefully and happily with one another,” she said.
The move to mainstream politics is the latest chapter in the life of a woman who did not always seem destined for the role of national heroine.
She is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, but she began her own political career late after spending much of her life abroad.
Suu Kyi studied at Oxford University and had two sons after marrying British academic Michael Aris, appearing to settle into life in Britain.
But when she returned to Yangon in 1988 to nurse her sick mother, protests erupted against the military, which ended with a brutal crackdown that left at least 3,000 people dead.
She proved to be a charismatic orator and took a leading role in the pro-democracy movement, delivering speeches to crowds of hundreds of thousands.
Alarmed by the support she commanded, the generals ordered her first stint of house arrest in 1989.
However, she remained a figurehead for the National League for Democracy, which swept 1990 elections by a landslide but was never allowed to take power.
A year later she won the Nobel Peace Prize, putting her beside Nelson Mandela among the world’s leading voices against tyranny.
Her struggle for her country has come at a high personal cost: her husband died in 1999, and in the final stages of his battle with cancer the junta denied him a visa to see his wife.
Suu Kyi refused to leave Myanmar to visit him, certain she would never have been allowed to return.
Her own health has been in focus ahead of the by-elections — she cancelled her campaigning on March 25 after she fell ill following a grueling schedule of rallies and speeches. She was put on a drip and told by her doctor to rest.
Wilson said Suu Kyi’s age and health could be factors encouraging her along her current path.
After years of favoring harsh measures against the regime, Suu Kyi has said she is optimistic about her country’s future and wants to achieve change through peaceful negotiation rather than an Arab Spring-style uprising.
“What has to be done is a revolution of the spirit,” she told AFP in an interview last September.
“Until attitudes change, until their (the authorities’) perceptions of the problems which they have to handle change, there will not be real change.” – Agence France-Presse