THANDWE, Burma — Burma’s Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is drawing large crowds as she campaigns in advance of Burma’s elections next month, which she calls the first “real test” of the Southeast Asian nation’s nascent shift toward democracy.
She is 70 now but still carries herself with an air of quiet defiance, fresh flowers as always wound in her dark hair. On the stump, she speaks of freedom, hope and an honest government for Burma’s 51 million people, many of whom remain mired in poverty five years after the country’s military junta began the process of democratic reforms.
Despite a constitutional provision that bars her from becoming president, Suu Kyi has vowed that if her party, the National League for Democracy, wins a majority of seats in the November election, she will run the country.
“If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I am going to be the leader of that government whether or not I am the president,” she told an Indian television interviewer this month.
But much uncertainty lies ahead for the democracy stalwart known simply as “the Lady.” As large as the crowds that come to hear her have been, Burma’s lack of reliable political polls make it difficult to gauge her popularity.
On a campaign swing this past weekend through politically sensitive Rakhine state — where hundreds of thousands of the country’s Rohingya Muslims live in apartheid-like conditions — she seemed keenly aware of the uncertainty and especially of Burma’s central question: Is the military truly going to loosen its grip on power?
“Keeping a promise is more difficult than giving it,” she told a rally in the town of Toungup, where she said there was no guarantee of a smooth transition. “So, basically, we say we will try.”
In 2010, the military regime in Burma, also known as Myanmar, began a series of reforms designed to open the country after nearly a half-century of military rule.
Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, was finally released and an election of sorts was held, although her party did not participate. In 2012, however, her party won 43 out of 45 seats in a by-election for parliament, and she was elected a member.
The United States has been deeply invested in Burma’s moves, easing stiff sanctions and providing nearly a half-billion dollars in aid. But critics say the country has made little progress on measures that President Obama called for in his second visit to the country in November, when he stood with Suu Kyi — whom he called a “hero” — at a news conference at her Rangoon residence.
Then, Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent push for democracy, said quietly that the country’s transition had hit a “bumpy patch.”
“We do worry that the reforms will turn out to be a total illusion, and we think that we need more concrete steps to ensure that the democratization process is what it was meant to be,” she told The Washington Post in an interview in June.
This year, President Thein Sein’s government stripped the Rohingya of their right to vote. Under pressure from the country’s rising Buddhist nationalist movement and hard-line monks, the government passed several laws regulating monogamy, religious conversion, interfaith marriage and population control that many feel target the Muslim community.
Journalists and other dissenters have been jailed, and the Committee to Protect Journalists included Burma on its top 10 list of “most censored” countries. Police wielding batons beat and bloodied student protesters in March. In recent days, two people have been arrested for negative comments about the military on Facebook.
Last week, John Kirby, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the use of such laws to restrict freedom of expression “directly contradicts democratic principles and the government’s own stated commitment to promote political reform and respect human rights.”
The military still controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament, which means that Suu Kyi’s party has an uphill battle. A constitutional provision that bans those with a foreign-born spouse and children from becoming president also remains in place. The ban was apparently aimed at Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, as are her two sons.
“To be honest, I have the feeling we are going backwards slowly,” said Aung Hlaing Win, 27, a student in social work at the University of Yangon.
In a showy signing ceremony in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw, on Thursday, eight of the country’s 15 armed ethnic groups signed a cease-fire agreement, but fighting continues along the Chinese border where conflict has raged for years.
In the past three years, Suu Kyi has come under fire from former allies, for her autocratic style, and from the international community, where she has been widely criticized for not speaking out forcefully enough on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims. An estimated 1 million Rohingyas have faced relentless persecution by the Burmese government for decades.
After clashes in 2012 with their Rakhine Buddhist neighbors, 140,000 Rohingyas were displaced, and the majority remain in camps in northern Rakhine, according to the United Nations. Their movement has been restricted, and they have scant access to health care, education, and livelihoods such as fishing and farming. Thousands more have fled by sea in rickety boats.
“Aung San Suu Kyi got the Nobel Prize on the ground of peace and harmony, but she completely failed to speak on ongoing discrimination and abuses in our Rohingya community,” said Abdul Rasheed, a Rohingya and a member of the Democracy and Human Rights Party. “She has become a politician more than human rights activist.”
Her supporters say that the Lady, or Mother Suu as she is also known, will say more when she is ready.
“She doesn’t think the time is right to speak out,” said Ni Ni May Myint, 27, a former teacher and NLD candidate for parliament. “There is criticism from the international community, but in the end, the judgment will be made by the Myanmar people.”
On the stump in southern Rakhine this past weekend, Suu Kyi stayed far away from the Rohingya camps, part of a political calculus to avoid the contentious issue, analysts say. Her party is not fielding any Muslim candidates.
She faced queries from the audience that exposed the deep religious fault lines in the country in advance of the balloting. In recent months, a group of Buddhist monks and other nationalists called Ma Ba Tha (the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) has emerged as a political force and threat to Suu Kyi’s party.
In Toungup, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists took the microphone three times to express the same fear — that under a new democratically elected government, the minority Muslim community would grow and edge out majority Buddhists. The town was swept up in the wave of religious violence in the state in 2012 when 10 Muslims traveling by bus were stopped and slain by a mob.
“I have seen some people try and intimidate voters,” Suu Kyi said in response. “I want to say that these individuals or organizations are not thinking about our country’s future, but only for themselves. If you believe their words and support them, it will bring our country trouble.”
The enthusiastic crowds that are turning up to see Suu Kyi were in part a testament to how much the country has changed after decades of repressive military rule, experts say. They dance, wave tiny red flags and sing the party’s theme song, “Time for Change.”
Suu Kyi remains “the only politician in the country that can engage a large majority of Burmese voters,” columnist Kyaw Zwa Moe wrote in the Irrawaddy newspaper last week.
In Thandwe, a beach community in southern Rakhine, supporters remembered once having to campaign surreptitiously, house to house, and Suu Kyi recalled how difficult it was for her to give a talk the last time she was in the area in 2002.
“Most of the people were afraid to come to my speech,” she said. “It was too risky to work for democracy. But I’ll always remember that the kids joined the speech from the front rows. They were so brave.”
Tun Kyaing, 67, a brickmaker and the party’s township secretary, said he was detained for two months in 1998 for distributing party leaflets and was forced to undergo sleep deprivation by military intelligence officers. Now he says he has hope for a different Burma, and it all rests on the shoulders of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“She’s the only person who can save this country,” he said.
Eaint Thiri Thu contributed to this report.