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From Icon to Politician


During two decades spent mostly under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was a symbol of democratic resistance at home and abroad: she won the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired her compatriots to continue struggling against the regime. But because she was essentially kept out of politics by the government, she rarely had to behave like a politician. Since she had so little freedom to act, she was nearly impossible to criticise: I never met anyone in Burma with a bad word to say about her.
In the past year, however, freed from house arrest, running for parliament in the upcoming by-elections and working closely with the government of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi has become a politician again, losing some of her iconic status and no longer above criticism.
She has begun making political trade-offs which some of her supporters are angry about. She has publicly called for the country to move on from the past, and to forgive old transgressions. Such a compromise is probably necessary – the military is Burma’s most powerful institution by far, and could stage a coup whenever it wanted – but some Burmese activists are quietly furious that there may be no justice for former leaders responsible for human rights abuses. Some activists question why Suu Kyi has allowed her party to re-enter politics, even though the parliament will still be stacked with former military officers, and the media, though freer, remains constrained and timid. Suu Kyi has been criticised by the leaders of the Kachin, an ethnic minority at war with the government, for not paying enough attention to their cause. And some younger activists worry that she is working too closely with Thein Sein, although this too may be essential if Burma is going to move forward. If Mandela had refused to work with de Klerk, South Africa would be a different place today.

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