Myanmar’s most famous dissident Aung San Suu Kyi underwent a transformation in 2012: from jailed activist to influential politician, winning a parliamentary seat for herself and helping to bring her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory in a historic ballot. Suu Kyi has since stood at the forefront of efforts to reestablish international ties with her long-isolated Myanmar, proving she is not just an icon but a pivotal actor in the future of the country.
After her parliamentary victory in April, she began a campaign of reaching out to Western and neighboring countries in an effort to ease decades-long sanctions. The small steps towards reform taken by the military government of President Thein Sein were given more weight by foreign governments with her internationally-hallowed voice behind them. Suu Kyi has so far been successful in leveraging global goodwill towards her individually in advancing the reestablishment of economic ties with Myanmar – and her clout has been useful in pressuring the Sein regime to continue on its slow path to reform.
By the time she made her first visit since the early ‘70s to the United States in September, the Obama administration had already taken the first steps in lifting sanctions against Myanmar and was on its way to removing even more. The European Union had similarly agreed to suspend its own sanctions on Myanmar, also largely due to Suu Kyi’s role in pushing reform. Obama’s visit to Myanmar in November — the first visit of its kind by a sitting U.S. president — was the final step in signaling a new era for Myanmar on the international stage.
And this thaw, though long in coming, is not undeserved. Suu Kyi’s election in the first place was made possible by the Thein regime’s decision to relax electoral laws, which allowed her party to run in the April elections. Since then, more political prisoners have been released and restrictive censorship laws have been eased, allowing for a previously unthinkable level of openness in the country. Though reformers still have a tough road ahead as they come up against a government still operating very much like a military dictatorship, they have been energized by Suu Kyi at the helm of the campaign for reform. However, now that she faces dealing with pressing issues within Myanmar, the stage is set for her position to be assessed more critically as a politician. The ongoing crisis in the western Rakhine state in particular poses a serious test of her political acumen. The sensitive issue, which involves widespread persecution of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s majority Buddhists, will challenge her to take action at the risk of her personal popularity.
Though her decades of house arrest in protest of Myanmar’s junta rule have solidified her credentials as a dedicated reformist and a figure of integrity, as a politician Suu Kyi will almost certainly jeopardize the very reputation that allowed her ascent in the first place. Whether she can balance her vision for democratic reform with the messy political processes that will enable it remains to be seen.