It has been quite a year for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who spent much of the past 20 years in enforced confinement at her Yangon lakeside home on University Avenue. In 2012, by comparison, she has hardly kept still. She has campaigned up and down the country and found herself a place to live in Naypyidaw, the grandiose ghost capital built by the departing generals. Her move there was made necessary by an event that many – possibly even she – thought may never come: her election to parliament.
Until 2012, Suu Kyi, now 67, had dared not leave the country. The generals made it clear that she was free to go – but not to come back. She even refused to leave when her husband, Michael Aris, was dying of cancer in England. This year she made up for lost time, visiting exiles from her country’s long-simmering ethnic conflict in Thailand and travelling to Oslo in June to collect the Nobel Peace Prize she was unable to receive in 1991. She spent time in the UK, where she was feted like a head of state. In the US, she received Congress’s highest civilian honour.
The political changes that have transformed her existence began only in March 2011 when a new government headed by President Thein Sein took over from the junta of Than Shwe. The new administration has surprised everyone with its liberal agenda: political prisoners have been released, censorship lifted and free by-elections held. President Thein Sein, whom Suu Kyi has praised as genuine and trustworthy, is playing South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk to her Nelson Mandela. He has even suggested that he could see her as president after elections in 2015, though the constitution currently forbids it on the grounds that she was married to a foreigner.
She recently made clear to one interviewer that becoming national leader was in her sights. “I’d be prepared to take over the position of president,” she said in her famously proper English, “not so much because I want to be president of a country but because I want the president of the country to be elected through the will of the people.” The will of the people is still strongly behind The Lady, as she has been known for years. So potent was her name – with its echoes of her father, the founder of independent Burma – that the generals dared not invoke it. Today, even in isolated villages in the steamy Irrawaddy Delta, people conjure her name as if it were magic.
Suu Kyi plays down her personal transition from revered political prisoner to a politician who sits with some of her former jailers in parliament. “I’ve always been a politician. What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?” In truth, there have been adjustments. In recent months, she has been criticised over her refusal explicitly to support the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim group from Rakhine state. She has apportioned blame to both Muslims and Buddhists, annoying human rights groups who say the Rohingya have borne the brunt of the violence.
Still, her aura is largely intact. When Barack Obama visited Myanmar in November, he gave a speech at Yangon university, scene of student uprisings and repression. On his way, the US president was almost obliged to stop for a chat at a certain house on University Avenue.
For once these days, Suu Kyi was at home to receive him.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
Women of 2012