By Professor Roman David, Lingnan University, and Professor Ian Holliday, University of Hong Kong. 

After nearly five years of quasi-civilian rule in a quasi-democratic framework, Myanmar is gearing up for the real thing. On 8 November, Myanmar will go to the polls for the first proper elections in more than 55 years. In a crowded political environment populated by military elites and their close associates, democratic activists, religious figures and ethnic minority leaders, much attention focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi. Unquestioned head of the opposition for more than 25 years and Nobel Peace Laureate in 1991, she remains today the most charismatic politician in her native land.

Suu Kyi faces a choice, however, that was not fully apparent when she was released from house arrest in 2010. Then, Myanmar’s dominant military machine had just pulled off a manipulated general election that secured power for itself and set the stage for a managed transition to democracy. Suu Kyi was invested with the hopes both of her own people as 'mother of the nation' (Amay Suu) and of many foreigners as an icon of democracy.

But soon she was challenged by deep-rooted issues that continue to plague Myanmar, and cast into doubt the very idea of a single nation.

National League for Democracy election celebrations, 2012. (Flickr/fabulousfabs.)

One is the ethnic question; Myanmar is dominated by Bamar people, but officially contains eight major national races and, within them, 135 ethnic groups. The other is the religious question; an overwhelming majority is Buddhist, but significant and visible minorities adhere to other faiths.

Against a backdrop of spreading election fever, these matters are becoming more pressing. Peripheral civil war continues to hamper progress toward a sustainable nationwide peace deal. Religious tension and violence flared in 2012 when Buddhists attacked Muslims in western Rakhine State, and in three years since has sporadically spread to other parts of the country. In neither sphere has the Government been able to establish clear leadership. Suu Kyi has struggled to stake out a satisfactory position, and when faced with outrages reported in formal and social media has typically taken a vow of silence.

Now, though, Suu Kyi needs to make a choice: whether to seek power by working with the diverse constituencies needed to stitch together a winning coalition in the coming election, or to promote tolerance by holding firm to the core values with which she has long been associated.

Aung San Suu Kyi's chance

The dark side of Myanmar politics became visible soon after the manipulated general election in November 2010 and a formal handover of power in March 2011, when a raft of liberal freedoms began to be introduced, rolling back censorship and allowing for forms of political participation that had been outlawed for years. Myanmar's politics became genuinely vibrant.

While a nationwide peace process gathered momentum throughout this period, conflict in Kachin State and parts of Shan State, both to the north on the border with China, was never quelled and from time to time has flared alarmingly. In this way, the depth of ethnic division in a nation where roughly one-third of the population identifies as non-Bamar was fully revealed. Still more worryingly, the religious violence that traumatised Rakhine State in mid-2012 had subsequent echoes in parts of the country ranging from the Bamar heartland to minority areas.

Moreover, a cohort of virulently nationalist monks emerged to provide religious backing for a growing campaign against alleged threats to Buddhism, the faith of nearly 90% of the population. Caught most frequently in the crossfire were Rakhine-based Rohingya Muslims denied any form of official recognition by a state that herded many of them into detention camps. By association, other Muslims living far from Rakhine were also targeted for discrimination, and the country as a whole became deeply sectarian.

Aung San Suu Kyi has elected mostly not to address either issue head-on. Broadly, this strategy has worked well, for though she has been criticised by both domestic and global advocacy groups, she appears to retain local and international backing.

A representative survey we conducted in the final two months of 2014 in Myanmar's two main regions (Yangon and Mandalay) and three of its ethnic states (Kachin, Kayin and Shan) confirmed that her domestic support remains solid. She is trusted by almost two-thirds of respondents, building clear majorities among men and women, urban and rural dwellers, and the well and poorly educated. Across ethnic groups and in distinct parts of the country there is also trust for Suu Kyi. Moreover, the National League for Democracy (NLD; which remains her political vehicle) was selected by 52% of prospective voters, leaving far behind the governing (and military-backed) Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) with 19%, as well as ethnic parties grouped together with 23%.

The now notorious Article 59f of the military-authored 2008 constitution denies presidential or vice-presidential office to citizens with close family members who 'owe allegiance to a foreign power'. While in the Western world this provision is viewed as straightforwardly perverse, the situation inside Myanmar is more complicated. Although 39% dislike the clause, 25% wish to keep it and 36% are undecided.

In part, this preference for institutionalised xenophobia over democratic fairness appears to be driven by a broad nationalism sweeping every aspect of contemporary Myanmar politics. It may be shaped by fear of close neighbours, above all a looming China to the east. Nevertheless, it does constrain Suu Kyi's ambition, and suggests the highest position on which she is able to set her sights is speaker of the lower house of parliament.

Although this role does not amount to running the country, it is undeniably important. Current USDP speaker Shwe Mann is widely acknowledged to occupy a position of power second in the formal political hierarchy only to that of the president. Moreover, while the stop-start peace process has been chiefly a matter for the executive, interfaith issues such as protecting the dominant Buddhist religion by placing curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and births have been the preserve of the legislature.

Aung San Suu Kyi's calculus

There is, then, still much for Suu Kyi to play for in Myanmar politics, and the option of retreating to the position of moral icon operating above the fray of day-to-day issues comes with clear costs. The core problem she faces is that her popularity derives from her long-standing identification with democratic reform, rather than from her (assumed) support for ethnic and religious tolerance. But with leading Buddhist monks mobilising behind an agenda of narrow religious and nationalist identity, it could be that she will be forced to take a clear stand on this divisive matter.

Yet she may hold a losing hand. In our 2014 survey of Myanmar's Yangon, Mandalay, Kachin, Kayin and Shan regions, 78% said they would not want to have a Rohingya neighbour and 12% did not know. Similarly, 63% supported the controversial interfaith restriction law and 21% did not know. Public opinion therefore veers towards the kind of intolerance that is deeply difficult for the NLD leader to manage.

This explains why Suu Kyi, while rarely speaking out on issues of 'national reconciliation' (the official euphemism for ending civil conflict in peripheral ethnic states), almost never says anything about vexed questions relating to the Rohingya minority in particular, and Muslims more generally. She is content to cede ground to radical Buddhist monks, possibly cognizant of the fact that with 72% trust among fellow citizens, they outrank her in public support.

More broadly, Suu Kyi has uneven support across religious groups. Clear majorities of Buddhists, Christians and Muslims all trust her. However, with Buddhists having considerably less faith in her than do Muslims, the religious question ties her hands. Furthermore, with Christians placing the least trust in her, the ethnic question also constrains her (at issue here is the ongoing conflict in Kachin State, a Christian majority zone).

Looking out on a complex political scene, Suu Kyi can chart no easy way forward. Sketching out a satisfactory electoral strategy is difficult. Every indication is that, if pushed, she will adhere to the path of calculating politician, and move still further from the status of moral icon that long defined her global profile. Her evident desire to sidestep the most sensitive issues facing Myanmar both domestically (Rohingya) and internationally (China), and her growing inability to hold together a fragmenting opposition movement are all explained by her insistent positioning as a politician, not a human rights activist.

Until now, supporters outside Myanmar have been content not to challenge the remarkable woman in whom they have long invested so much political capital. As ethnic and particularly religious intolerance increasingly consumes Myanmar, however, they may have to reconsider that loyalty. President Obama visited the country in 2012 and 2014, meeting on both occasions with President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. Despite urging quicker democratisation, more rapid peace and a fuller embrace of religious minorities, he has had little impact on the political trajectory the country is taking.

With Myanmar's 8 November election looming, Suu Kyi's calculus seems unlikely to change. Yet as political positions firm up, spreading intolerance is fast becoming the most urgent social issue. The role of outsiders in picking up the human rights mantle largely shrugged off by Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to take on growing significance as Myanmar edges closer to its election.