UNITED NATIONS – When Aung San Suu Kyi was last in New York she was single, sharing a small apartment in midtown Manhattan with an exiled Burmese singer and walking six minutes each day to a bureaucratic job she hated at the United Nations.
That was in 1969. The 24-year-old daughter of the founding father of an independent Burma, still unsure what to do with her life, lived in relative anonymity for three years, until she left with no regrets to marry an Englishman, according to Peter Popham’s biography of her.
Next week the Burmese democracy icon, now a 67-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner and member of parliament, will be back in New York for the first time in decades to attend meetings at her former employer. During a 17-day U.S. tour, she will be feted in Fort Wayne, on both coasts and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian honor.
Still, as she transitions from icon to practical politician, Suu Kyi’s silent treatment of the minority Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has begun to blemish her reputation as a champion of human rights. No longer confined to house arrest, she now must gauge whether to compromise some principles in order to retain popular support.
“She could have been Gandhi, but she sacrificed her moral authority,” said Robert Lieberman, a physics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who spent two years making an undercover documentary on Myanmar. “The Burmese are very prejudiced against the Rohingya, and she is running in 2015. Politics are a dirty business.”
While beloved by voters – her image is a fixture in Burmese shop windows and homes – the majority of the population reviles the stateless Rohingyas, who are deprived of citizenship in Myanmar. The next nationwide vote in 2015 will take place a quarter of a century after the military dictatorship refused to recognize the victory of Suu Kyi’s party in 1990 elections.
At home and abroad, Suu Kyi remains a symbol of Myanmar’s stoic non-violent struggle against the five-decade rule of generals who kept her under house arrest for 15 years. As the former military junta allowed a political opening, she showed her willingness to engage by entering parliament after her party’s successful showing in April by-elections, running for a seat in parliament that came open between regular elections.
For the first time this year, Suu Kyi has been able to travel freely overseas without fear of being banned from re- entry, dropping by Oslo to pick up her Nobel Peace Prize – 21 years after it was bestowed on her.
She also visited Great Britain, where she had studied at Oxford University and lived in the 1980s with her husband Michael Aris, a Tibetan scholar. In 1999, when Aris was dying, she dared not visit him out of concern she wouldn’t be allowed to return home.
Wherever Suu Kyi goes, she attracts throngs of supporters seeking a glimpse of their idol and media eager to quiz her.
Questions on where she stands on the persecution of the Rohingya dogged her in a trip to Europe in June. Her decision to skirt the issue elicited rare criticism.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has the moral authority to change the terms of debate in Myanmar about the Rohingya towards a rights-respecting, non-discriminatory path, and we certainly hope she will seize the unique opportunity of this U.S. trip to do so,” said Bangkok-based Phil Robertson, who oversees the work of Human Rights Watch in Asia.
“We hope she can push the government of Myanmar to recognize that the Rohingya deserve citizenship,” he said in an email.
When Thein Sein makes his first U.N. appearance as Myanmar’s president at the General Assembly on Sept. 27, he, too, will be grilled about the Rohingya. On the same day, 80 miles north of New York in New Haven, Conn., Suu Kyi will be addressing Yale University students. Their paths won’t cross at the U.N., with Suu Kyi leaving New York as the president arrives.
It will be harder to duck the issue of the Rohingya at media-packed events during her extended stay in the United States which also will include a stop-off on the West Coast. On Sept. 29, she will meet members of the Burmese community – a mixture of economic migrants and political dissidents – in San Francisco.
Nyunt Than, a 49-year-old software engineer who fled Myanmar in 1992 and settled in the Bay Area in 1996, says he hopes finally to meet his idol in person. As a young activist, he and his friends followed her around wherever she spoke.
Nyunt Than, who went on to form the Burmese American Democratic Alliance in the U.S., says he wants to visit his homeland at the end of the year, but is concerned the authorities have yet to clear his name from a travel blacklist.
“My father is still alive, he’s 85, but my mother passed away a few years ago,” Nyunt Than said in a telephone interview. “The sad thing is that even with my financial support my family still struggles.”
Born in a village about 70 miles east of Yangon, Nyunt Than is among the 100,000 people of Burmese descent living in the U.S. He’s able to send money home through unofficial channels, and bought an apartment in the capital for his parents so they could have access to better health care.
Known to the Burmese as the “The Lady,” Suu Kyi’s grueling schedule may take a toll on her fragile constitution. She’s had fainting spells and bouts of exhaustion this year.
“We are so happy to have her, but I feel sorry she is coming such a long way because of her health,” Nyunt Than said.
Still, the Rohingya remain a delicate topic, even for Burmese who left their homeland long ago. When asked about Suu Kyi’s stance on the Rohingya, Nyunt Than stiffens.
“The international media and some rights groups do not understand the circumstances and the background well enough and got it wrong in their reporting, views and the remarks,” he said. “There is an humanitarian situation and lack of rules of law in the Arakan State in Myanmar, and the current government, activists, and the communities are collectively addressing it.”
Politics aside, Myanmar’s economic potential is the point of focus for investors. Emerging from isolation as sanctions are loosened, Myanmar’s economy may grow as much as 8 percent a year over the next decade, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Getting Suu Kyi to be more forthcoming may prove difficult.
Lieberman, who interviewed Suu Kyi at length while filming “They Call it Myanmar,” describes her as quite guarded, even intimidating, on subjects she’s uncomfortable with, especially her private life. When he nudged her to be a little open, she snapped, “I can’t be someone I am not.”
“And no personal questions, by the way.”