After two decades of international adoration as Myanmar's democracy heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be slipping off her high pedestal as she tackles the reality of parliamentary politics. Since joining parliament and the political mainstream in May, Suu Kyi has lost the immunity from criticism she enjoyed as one of the world's most famous political prisoners, under house arrest for a total of 15 years between 1989 to 2010.
But she has been slammed by human rights groups for not speaking out more over sectarian fighting in the Rakhine State, where 180 people died last year, and for not condemning the military's ongoing offensive in the Kachin State, which has displaced more than 100,000 civilians in the past two years.
In March, Suu Kyi was even heckled by residents of Monywa in northern Myanmar when her inquiry into the Latpadaung mine incident, in which more than 30 protesters were seriously injured, urged locals to accept the unpopular Chinese-backed project. "She has fallen off the pedestal that the general public built for her," said the emigre-run Mizzama News in a commentary on the unusual display of disappointment in the country's democracy champion.
But Suu Kyi says the growing criticism is an inevitable result of the country becoming more democratic. "It's normal, and it's natural, especially now people are free to talk and argue," Suu Kyi said of the mounting criticism of her and her National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party.
Attacks on Suu Kyi are expected to intensify in the coming months as ministers and politicians gear up for elections in late 2015, political observers said. Suu Kyi is widely expected to make a bid for president, although the current constitution would prevent that even if her party won, NLD sources said, and she has played down her presidential ambitions. "My eyes are not on 2015. They are exactly on now," she said. "And the main battle now is being waged in the parliament."
Win Thein, one of the 43 NLD members of parliament who along with Suu Kyi won seats in a by-election in April, also said he found adjusting to the parliamentary process hard. A political prisoner for more than 10 years, he said he was amused to see his jailer amongst his new parliamentary colleagues. But the hardest lesson, he said, was the need to be nice to his fellow legislators. "If we are not friendly and talkative, we cannot influence them," he said. Suu Kyi and the rest of the party have also had to become more politically astute, to adapt to working within parliament.
Observers said that she has positioned herself strategically between the increasingly rivalrous President Thein Sein and House Speaker Shwe Mann, both ex-generals who were senior leaders in the junta that ruled Myanmar between 1988 and 2010. "We cooperate with the speaker who is very good at giving us a solid role within the parliament," Suu Kyi told dpa. She has dropped in to discuss the day's business with Shwe Mann every morning during the parliament's session since late last year, Win Thein said.
This closeness with the speaker has irritated many NLD supporters, who fear she is being used as a pawn in Shwe Mann's political rivalry with the president. But diplomats deny she is being played against the president, with whom she also has effective dealings.
After refusing to talk to him for months, at Union Day celebrations in February she initiated a reconciliation with Thein Sein which led to several confidential talks. These appear to have yielded political dividends for the opposition, as the president's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) then set up a committee to consider changes to the constitution. "It is the duty of the lawmakers to make modifications in line with the time and circumstances," Shwe Mann said of the proposed amendments.
These could include changing the restrictions that would prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president if the NLD won the elections in 2015, and removing the military's 25-per-cent quota of parliamentary seats, USDP Vice Chairman Htay Oo told dpa. Such changes, if adopted, would be a major victory for Suu Kyi's parliamentary manoeuvring, as she learns the wisdom of the advice she received from then US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2011. "It's easy to be an icon, but much more difficult to be a politician."