Don't Count Burma's Lady out... Yet

File photo dated 22/06/12 of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who said she is still "fond" of the coun
File photo dated 22/06/12 of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who said she is still "fond" of the country's army despite it putting her under house arrest for 15 years.

The last couple of weeks have been extremely rough ones for Aung San Suu Kyi and her country, but the former Nobel Peace Prize winner is still the chess player to watch in Burma.

Known to millions in her country simply as "The Lady," Suu Kyi remains the equivalent of the Queen on the game board, maneuvering for power with generals as knights and monks as bishops. She is playing a very calculated, hard-nosed game with an endgame in mind. Winning would take three daring moves:

  • Getting the military-rigged Parliament to approve a more democratic constitution
  • Winning more seats in the 2015 general election for her party
  • Gaining the presidency for herself

The degree of difficulty is high. But those who are focusing solely on the day-to-day problems -- which are considerable -- may not realize how shrewdly Suu Kyi is expanding her base to include the all-powerful Army, known as the Tatmadaw. The recent photos of her on the Army Day reviewing stand, sitting sit-by-side with generals who once kept her under house arrest, were electrifying. She and the generals were sending a very public signal that they can work together.

Based on my interviews in Burma in recent weeks, Suu Kyi is taking a page from Hillary Clinton's playbook when she became a U.S. Senator. That is, do your committee chores conscientiously and don't get out front of those who outrank you. Suu Kyi has been dutifully building bridges with members in Parliament to get the votes she ultimately will need to loosen military control. She also has reached out to the ultra-rich business cronies of the ruling generals, giving them the opportunity to help the democracy movement rather than thwart it.

Not everyone has applauded those overtures. Suu Kyi has been accused of selling out and trickery. Even worse, she has been accused of becoming a politician. Lyndon Johnson would be amused.

Part of the increased criticism can be chalked up to the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest. It was easier to seem saintly in seclusion. At the same time, journalists in the country are being unshackled. Independent daily newspapers recently were allowed to operate in the country for the first time since 1964 - including one published by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The Associated Press also got permission to open a bureau in Rangoon for the first time in years. More reporters mean more scrutiny and more negative reports.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, Suu Kyi was mobbed and heckled by villagers whose land had been taken by a mining company. Suu Kyi had been asked to resolve the dispute, but under the law, could not get the villagers' homes back for them. She was hammered for days in the media as a failure and all but written off.

Her current test is dealing with the highly combustible tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. Violent disputes have left thousands Muslims trapped in squalid refugee camps in the western part of the country. In the center of the country, at least 40 Muslims were killed in sectarian riots; some were hacked to pieces and set on fire. In the north, fighting also has continued in Christian ethnic areas, where thousands more are in refugee camps.

Suu Kyi has been under mounting pressure to speak out louder against the violence and for better treatment of the ethnic minorities. President Thein Sein has taken the unprecedented step of going on TV to call for peace and calm, but Suu Kyi's voice and moral authority would help.

The situation is complicated by reports that elements of the military-backed government -- "the big invisible hand" -- may have orchestrated some of the violence. Is it possible the King on the other side of the game board is hiding some pieces behind his back? All the more reason to hope Aung San Suu Kyi finds her footing as a Parliamentarian and her voice as a peacemaker. Burma is in the bulls-eye of Asia, between China and India, which makes this version of the Great Game all the more critical.

During my recent visit, a range of people working for democracy expressed a mix of concerns:

Zin Mar Aung was imprisoned for 11 years for distributing poetry with a political message as a college student. She is now organizing women around the country to speak up, using her cell phone to coordinate conferences. She posts photos of flowers on Facebook and has flowers on the dash of her car because she didn't get to enjoy any for 11 years. "This is a fragile transition period," she says, "But we are building a new civil society." She and other volunteers are campaigning against hate crimes and have traveled to console victims of the unrest.

  • U Win Tin, considered the country's senior journalist, recently celebrated his 83rd birthday by going to the hospital for problems related to his many prison stays. He wears blue shirts that are the same color as his prison shirts to remind that the country is not totally free while the military controls Parliament. He believes Aung San Suu Kyi is the only one who can hold the party together going into the 2015 elections: "She is the unifying force. She is influential. She is charismatic. She is essential."
  • Nay Phone Latt, the country's leading blogger, has fashionable spiked-up hair and has studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He was jailed for providing news to western journalists during the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" by monks. Now 33, he is training the next generation of bloggers in all-day classes. "Everyone wants to be a blogger, but they don't know anything about journalism," he explains. "Some things are changing. But we have so many things to change. We need help to build capacity."
  • Hkun Htun Oo, who has spoken out boldly for the rights of the large Shan ethnic group, was released from prison last year. He said, "If there's no peace with the ethnic nationalities, how can Burma go forward? The President says the fighting will stop, but the Burmese army keeps attacking. They are still in the habit of not honoring their words. Peace with them is impossible. But we must keep trying." Not long after our interview, Burmese troops attacked the Shan areas again.
  • U Tin Oo, a former general who helped found the NLD in 1988 along with Aung San Suu Kyi, remains one of her closest advisers. He is impressively spry at the age of 86 despite several lengthy prison stays. Tin Oo believes it will be possible to change the constitution before the crucial 2015 elections. "If we compare to previous situations, we have some light now," he said. He estimates that Suu Kyi, at 67, has another 10 years to continue trying to move the country forward. By then a new generation will be ready to lead. In the meantime, most of the burden falls on Suu Kyi. "She is a smart lady," he said, "She understands the needs of the country."

Western diplomats express concern that Aung San Suu Kyi has become more isolated in recent months as she intensifies her focus on Parliamentary and the 2015 elections. She will be visiting Japan next week to meet with the Japanese prime minister, but has been turning down most interviews in Rangoon and narrowed her circle of access. A new wall around her house protects her from the busloads of tourists that pose for photos by her gate every day, like visitors to Graceland.

Yet Aung San Suu Kyi remains the most admired figure in the country, despite any blunders and blemishes. If voters get the chance to choose between her and any of the former generals, there will be no contest. Better a Queen with a slightly slipped halo than those who used to run the jails.