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It's Too Early to Judge Aung San Suu Kyi

Last March, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was heckled by hundreds of protestors at Latpadaung copper mine, located in Burma, or Myanmar. The protestors were farmers - victims of government-backed land grabs and violent military repression. As chair of the commission tasked to determine the legality of the military's actions and how the farmers should be compensated for their losses, Aung San Suu Kyi's report surprised many throughout the world. The commission did not condemn the military officials responsible for the violence, nor did it allow the farmers to return to their homes. Instead, the farmers were provided financial compensation.

"All the love we have for you, it's nothing!" said one villager, "Your report is like a death sentence for the people." This statement echoes the growing group number of voices inside and outside of Burma disenchanted with the human rights icon turned full-time government politician. During her time under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was compared to individuals as Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and Vaclav Havel. Were such comparisons naïve and shortsighted? Or do circumstances in Burmese politics tell a different story?

Since 1962, poor governance and violent, repressive tactics perpetrated by the country's military have transformed Burma from a regional agricultural and educational leader to an international backwater. Stringent economic and political sanctions by the west over the decades further isolated the pariah state. But when Burma's military generals began making unprecedented democratic reforms in 2010, starting with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and removing laws curbing freedom of speech, it sparked hope throughout the world that the military-dominated country was on the verge of transitioning to a full-fledged democracy.

Center stage in these developments was Aung San Suu Kyi. The former Burmese leader had spent 15 of the previous 20 years under house arrest after her 1989 landslide election victory was nullified by the military regime. Released in November of 2011, she immediately returned to political campaigning.

In the elections of April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won 43 of 44 seats available for election in Burma's Pyithu Hluttaw, or lower house of parliament (the lower house comprises 440 seats in total). Despite the NLD's resounding victory, the party possesses very little real political power; most of the other 91% of seats in the Hluttaw are occupied by members of the military or their associates. Many inside and outside Burma mistakenly assume Aung San Suu Kyi wields significant political power. In reality, her influence is quite limited.

When Burma's military regime relaxed its repressive policies, the international community, led by the United States and European Union, rewarded the country by lifting long-held economic sanctions and encouraged billions of dollars in private international investment. However, with good reason, critics view the military's pivot toward democracy with skepticism. Fundamental reforms have not been made to the country's power structure. Burma's courts, parliament, and executive branch of government lack any real authority over the military. Should the country's experiment toward democracy radically disrupt the military's hold on power, a military coup is a distinct possibility.

In public, Aung San Suu Kyi praised the removal of international sanctions and expressed her affinity for the military generals. But sources say in private, she argued vociferously for the staggered removal of sanctions after fundamental democratic milestones had been achieved, such as the reduction of military control over the country. Her arguments went unheeded.

Critics wonder how Aung San Suu Kyi could express praise for the military in light of the regime's atrocious human rights record. Perhaps it is because she operates in an extremely tenuous political space. She has made clear her desire to become the country's president in Burma's significant 2015 general elections. The president of Burma wields tremendous domestic power, second only to the military. The presidency would provide Aung San Suu Kyi with the power to bring about fundamental democratic reforms that would shape the country's future for decades to come. But she is barred from holding office by Burma's 2008 constitution. Furthermore, changing the constitution requires the approval of over 75% of parliament. The military has constitutionally apportioned itself 25% of seats, effectively making itself the political kingmaker.

Cognizant that Aung San Suu Kyi's political future rests in their hands, the military has capitalized on a trifecta of issues that could derail popular support for her and the NLD as they campaign toward the 2015 elections. Firstly, Thein Sein, former military general and president of Burma, appointed Aung San Suu Kyi to chair the commission reviewing the Latpadaung copper mine dispute between local farmers and the military. In 2010 the government provided a foreign mining company rights to excavate the mine, which resulted in the forced relocation of hundreds of farming families who were not entitled to a share of the mining profits. In 2012, protesting farmers received severe burns when the military used incendiary devices to disperse their peaceful gatherings. Despite widespread support of the farmers' plight, Aung San Suu Kyi's commission was required to evaluate the Latpadaung dispute based on Burma's existing legal framework in which all land remains the property of the state. This was not widely understood, and by deeming the military's actions legal, she appeared to betray her own human rights record.

Secondly, due to ongoing military assaults in ethnic regions, nearly half a million internally displaced refugees live in makeshift camps throughout the country. For decades, the military has sought administrative control over the various regions, while prominent ethnic groups have sought to become independent nation-states. By not standing more prominently in support of the minority groups, Aung San Suu Kyi lost the support of key ethnic leaders. Thirdly, Aung San Suu Kyi has not been strongly vocal on the issue of discrimination against Burma's unpopular Rohingya and Muslims -- groups reviled by a majority of the country. For many activists, taking a stand would signal a victory for human rights, but by doing so Aung San Suu Kyi would further erode her support inside the country. Aung San Suu Kyi's positions on these matters appear uncharacteristic of the human rights icon who once calmly walked through the pointed rifles of a firing squad until the squad's captain lost his nerve and backed down.

The road for Aung San Suu Kyi has been long. She entered political life in 1988 only to endure over two decades of emotional torture and imprisonment. For years at a time, she was not allowed to see her two teenage children. The military regime offered a Faustian deal to leave the country at any time to be with her family in the United Kingdom, with the unspoken understanding she could never return to Burma. The military's desire to eliminate her were arguably never more cruel than in 1999, when her husband, stricken with cancer, was denied a visa into Burma. He died three weeks later at his home in Oxford.

The experience of gaining power only to have it taken away and the cruelties of her incarceration have afforded Aung San Suu Kyi extraordinary insight into what human beings are capable of. Instead of shying away from politics upon her release in 2011, she plunged right back into the political realm. The same dogged perseverance that gave her the moniker, the "Titanium Orchid," suggests she is operating from a different realm than that of pure self-interest as some critics believe. Though her positions appear to be at odds with the world's expectations of a Nobel laureate, from another perspective her recent actions seem to reflect a deep and thoughtful pragmatism, grounded in the awareness of the difficulty in realizing any ideal in the face of strong opposition.

At present, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be pursuing measures necessary to secure her political future from the military regime's grasp. Should Aung San Suu Kyi succeed and become the president of Burma in 2015, she will be in a much stronger position to advance her agenda for justice, human rights, and democracy. Until her political destiny is secure, it is too early to judge her.