DAWEI, Myanmar (Reuters) - Shortly after her aging aircraft rattled its way off the runway and into the skies of southern Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi crossed the aisle to where three orange-robed Buddhist monks were seated in the first row.
She knelt down and bowed her head, as passengers watched aboard a suddenly hushed plane. Media were not alerted. There were no clicking cameras.
“That’s a wonderful moment,” the lone Western diplomat on the plane said quietly.
Her display of obeisance and humility, less than an hour after ecstatic crowds feted her like a rock-star in the southern city of Dawei, revealed a side few have seen.
This more deferential demeanor of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate may well help sustain the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup when it was known as Burma.
While she is widely admired at home, figures in her own movement have criticized her as too dogmatic, inflexible or arrogant - accusations amplified by state media under the former military junta which handed power to a nominally civilian parliament in March.
The ruling generals often demonized her as Westernized, out of touch with Myanmar. It contrasts with her international image as an enduring symbol of democracy, locked away 15 of the past 22 years for her beliefs until freed from house arrest in November, 2010.
Her steadfast support of Western economic sanctions over the years, however, divided the dissident community. Some felt they hurt the general public and allowed the junta and its cronies to carve up Myanmar’s resources and other assets for themselves. Suu Kyi countered they were crucial to force the generals to produce sincere reforms, echoing U.S. and European views.
But as Myanmar changes, so too, is she. At 66, many see her now as more politically astute, more realistic.
“She wasn’t always humble, she wasn’t always flexible. But to succeed now, she needs to be flexible, and she is starting to show that,” said one veteran Burmese journalist.
Her genuflection in the plane was emblematic of her position as opposition leader as well: monks have been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, and Suu Kyi had just finished speeches calling for changes to the army-drafted constitution at the heart of Myanmar’s power structure.
Later, speaking with Reuters aboard the 1970s-era Myanma Airways aircraft, she ticked off her top priorities, including introducing the rule of law and ending several ethnic insurgencies. But above all, she wants to amend the 2008 constitution ensuring the military’s strong influence over the resource-rich country of nearly 60 million people.
“That’s our election platform,” she said.
Her last campaign, ahead of the 1990 elections, awoke similar passions and ended with troops surrounding her lakeside villa, locking her under house arrest.
In the tumult before the election, thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed, and the 43-year-old Suu Kyi emerged as an unlikely leader. She had a home in Oxford, England, a British husband and two sons. But as the daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, considered by many as the nation’s founding father, she was urged to speak up.
Just months after returning to Yangon to care for her ailing mother in 1988, she shot to prominence.
“I have never really wanted to get involved in politics but the people of Burma had a very high regard for my father ... so obviously I felt a sense of responsibility,” she told Reuters in an August, 1988, interview. “After the August demonstrations and the killings, I felt it would be too cowardly of me to sit tight in my house and pretend that nothing was happening.”
In less than a year, she was drawing tens of thousands of supporters at rallies, becoming a symbol of democracy. After her arrest, the junta tightened its grip.
Two decades later, her star power is undimmed.
In Dawei on Sunday, thousands of ecstatic supporters turned out for a glimpse of her, lining dusty streets, cheering and waving little red-and-white flags, the colors of her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Some wore shirts with her image. Many chanted “long live mother Suu.”
At each stop, she roused them into wild cheers.
After her rallies in Dawei, state media reminded candidates that formal campaigning had yet to begin for the 48 available seats in the 1,158-seat legislature.
Suu Kyi’s speeches on Tuesday in rural Myaing township toed that line. She did not mention the election or even her party, speaking instead about a British development project. While in 1989 she defied authorities by holding illegal rallies and ended up under house arrest, Suu Kyi now seems less willing to provoke authorities into a backlash that could undermine the nascent reforms.
But her appearances in Dawei had the unmistakable feel of a campaign. She spoke on stages over loudspeakers in four villages, pressing her demand for changing the constitution whose clauses reserve a quarter of parliament’s seats for the military, and warning that any government that lies to the people should be removed.
“There are certain laws which are obstacles to freedom of the people, and we will try to abolish these laws within the framework of the parliament,” she said at one rally. “Only when democracy prevails will the people’s power rule.”
While little has changed physically on Myanmar’s rutted streets, the government has seen a dramatic transformation the past six months. Last August, President Thein Sein, a former junta leader, stunned lawmakers in the capital Naypyitaw, urging them to pursue reforms, adopt good governance and do the unthinkable: freely voice opinions.
Since then, hundreds of political prisoners have been freed. The government regularly engages with Suu Kyi. Parliament, dismissed as a rubber-stamping sham when it opened a year ago, began a third session last week with lively debate on a reform program that could lead the West to start lifting sanctions by mid-year.
Anti-corruption legislation is being drafted, along with bills ending the secrecy surrounding the national budget. A law is in the works that would overhaul a village administration system that has stacked election odds in favor of the dominant military-backed party. U.S. President Barack Obama has hailed Myanmar’s “flickers of progress.”
“We’re finally moving in the right direction,” said Sai Saung Si, 65, a lawmaker from northern Shan State and vice-chairman of the Shan Nationalities Development Party, a major ethnic party that won 18 seats in the lower house in 2010.
Each Sunday, he holds meetings in his home for villagers to raise issues. At first, people were afraid to speak up. But that’s changing, he said. “When I go back to my town and when there are problems, because of my status as a member of parliament, what I say takes effect. It is working,” he said.
He takes the most difficult problems directly to the relevant ministries. If they try to ignore him, he plays back the president’s words. “I tell them the president wants good governance. They generally don’t argue with that.”
During Suu Kyi’s swing through Dawei, children in white and green school uniforms lined the streets waving and cheering. Under the junta, they would have been strictly barred from opposition events.
The usual retinue of undercover police did not trail her every move as they did on a July 5 visit to Bagan, north of Yangon, where some feared a reprise of the 2003 bloody attack on her motorcade in which 70 supporters were killed.
In Yangon this week, journalists, government officials and media executives both local and foreign met in a conference room to discuss changes to laws that for a half-century meant that every song, book, cartoon, news story and planned piece of art would require approval by teams of censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of Myanmar’s authoritarian system.
“Now we have a chance to change our policy,” U Than Htay, Minister of Energy, told Reuters in an interview in Naypyitaw. “Once we took office, we have changed many things to develop our nation than previously.” His first policy shift was to ban the export of natural gas from new fields in Myanmar, and use those resources to speed up development of local industry.
A turning point for Suu Kyi came on August 19 when she and President Thein Sein met one-on-one in Naypyitaw. The president has since repeatedly urged parliament to pursue reforms, while Suu Kyi has voiced support for the government.
What the two discussed has not been made public. Some people here think Thein Sein may have reassured Suu Kyi of not just the government’s support but also of the military’s. More importantly, they speculate, Thein Sein conveyed another, crucial message: that Myanmar’s former strongman, retired Senior General Than Shwe, had given his blessing to the reforms.
That is not entirely clear. But diplomats say it would allow him to retire in peace rather than face the possibility of an Arab Spring-style popular revolt.
The 78-year-old military strategist remains mostly out of public view and seldom speaks with outsiders. Dissidents paint him as a paranoid despot driven by a mixture of greed, fear and superstition. But the general who spent much of his military career as an expert in psychological warfare is also considered a brilliant tactician and is thought to remain influential.
Some skeptics in the democracy movement say Suu Kyi is working too closely with a government stacked with the same former generals who persecuted dissidents, fearing she is being exploited to convince the West to lift sanctions.
“If it will serve the country, let them exploit me, let them take advantage of me,” Suu Kyi said in response to such criticism last year.
The breathtaking pace of reforms does pose plenty of challenges for her.
Her party lacks experience in administration and organizing campaigns, but that also may be changing. In the Dawei region, t-shirts with her image or the party’s name were distributed free of charge before her arrival in a sign of efficiency.
Another question is how much influence she can wield over the year-old parliament. But lawmakers interviewed by Reuters said it could be formidable.
“When she comes to the parliament, if she raises one issue, and this issue is very beneficial to the country, then who will dare go against it?” said Sai Saung Si of the Shan Nationalities Development Party.
Still, it will take time before many Burmese no longer fear their government - something Suu Kyi directly addressed.
“You must be able to go to bed without having to worry who will come and knock on your door at night, and you must be able to wake up with this in your mind,” she told one rally at Dawei.
But she was also careful not to raise expectations too high, telling party leaders not to “give impossible pledges....When you persuade someone to vote for you, it should be done spiritually.”
Managing expectations could her most daunting challenge. If she wins the April 1 by-elections, her supporters expect her to accelerate the reform process and possibly transform parliament. And many have even higher hopes.
“As to whether we should feel optimistic about the changes happening in Myanmar, the key person is Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Maung Tin Thit, an environmental activist and former political prisoner in Mandalay. “She is the person who will decide whether we should be optimistic. She will be president one day.”
Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Bill Tarrant