As Myanmar prepares to vote Sunday, one of Asia’s most charismatic politicians, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, appears poised to lead her National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory.
While seen as the country’s most significant vote in a quarter-century, there’s still no certainty that a victorious Suu Kyi will be able to form a new government or fundamentally alter the country’s military-dominated power structure in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Suu Kyi is blocked from becoming president by a clause in the military-drafted constitution that bars anyone with foreign spouses or offspring from assuming the top office. Her late husband was a British national, as are their two sons.
The charter also guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament.
Some observers, like Yangon-based analyst Kyaw Lin Oo, see this system as a straitjacket tailored for Suu Kyi. Kyaw Lin Oo says the system’s architect is none other than Than Shwe, a senior general and the retired head of the military junta.
“I think that Gen. Than Shwe thought very carefully how to place her” in this trap, he says.
But, speaking on Thursday to hundreds of journalists at her lakeside home in Yangon, Suu Kyi made it clear that she’s determined to break free of her restraints.
“I will be above the president” if the NLD wins the election, she said. “I’ll run the government and we’ll have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.”
At age 70, and with no clear successor in her party, this would appear to be Suu Kyi’s last chance to lead her country.
But winning the election is only a first step to bigger things, says Nay Phone Latt, a 35-year-old blogger running on the NLD’s ticket for the Yangon City Council. “Our ultimate goal is to amend the constitution and achieve national reconciliation,” he says.
To many Burmese, a victory by Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, would mark a crowning victory after nearly two centuries of struggle for independence — first from British colonial rule, from 1824 to 1948, and then from Burmese military dictatorship, from 1962 to 2011.
Since then, a nominally civilian government has released political prisoners, eased media censorship and signed ceasefires with some ethnic rebel groups that have fought for autonomy for decades.
An electoral victory would also fulfill the personal destiny Suu Kyi has long believed was hers. Her father, Gen. Aung San, helped win independence from the British. Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford University, but left her comfortable life and family in Britain to return to Burma and lead pro-democracy protests in 1988 that the military rulers suppressed.
Suu Kyi and the NLD won a landslide victory in 1990 elections. But the junta annulled the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the next two decades. She chose not to visit her husband, Michael Aris, who died in the U.K. in 1999, because she feared she would not be allowed back into her own country.
In 1990, as now, the military promised to return to the barracks and hand power over to the election winners. But in 1990, they changed their minds. The NLD boycotted elections in 2010, which they considered rigged against them.
On Thursday, Suu Kyi said that her party had filed complaints of vote-rigging — including incomplete voter lists and interference by hardline nationalist Buddhist monks — to election authorities, but with no apparent result.
She declined to say at what point she would declare the vote not free or fair, but predicted that if signs of fraud are “too suspicious, then we will have to make a fuss about it.”
Stealing the vote may not be easy. More than 10,000 domestic and foreign election observers will witness it. Some preliminary results will be announced soon after the vote, but official tallies will take weeks. A new government will not be formed until 2016.