The taxi driver gestured across Yangon’s Inya Lake toward the mansion — and prison — where democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will spend Myanmar’s first election day in 20 years locked up.
“I like this lady. Everybody likes this lady,” the 50-year-old said, raising a finger to his lips in the knowledge that his comment would be considered seditious by the iron-fisted military rulers.
“She has already won. She is top,” he whispered.
Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in the last poll in 1990, even though she was confined to her home and disqualified from standing, but the junta refused to accept the result.
Fearful of her enduring popularity, the regime has kept the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner in detention for most of the past two decades — and off the political scene for the Nov. 7 vote.
Without the participation of Myanmar’s symbol of peaceful resistance, many voters are left without their party of choice, after the NLD boycotted the process and was forcibly disbanded by the junta.
The decision to shun the vote has deeply split the opposition, between those in agreement and others who say the move wastes a rare chance for gradual change, albeit through a deeply flawed electoral process.
“It’s better to have something than nothing,” said Democratic Party candidate Nay Ye Ba Swe, the daughter of former prime minister Ba Swe, who said she and Aung San Suu Kyi were “like sisters.”
“We have great respect and great admiration for her because she sacrificed a lot for the country, for the people, and she’s an international icon,” Nay Ye Ba Swe said.
However, “We find that by boycotting the election, the democratic voices will be losing the votes,” she said.
Nobody doubts that Oxford--educated Aung San Suu Kyi has paid a heavy price in her struggle for freedom for Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962.
Her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999, and in the final stages of his battle with cancer the junta refused him a visa to see his wife. She has not seen her two sons for a decade and has never met her grandchildren.
Although she lives an isolated existence, without telephone or Internet access and with only two female aides for company, it is largely down to Aung San Suu Kyi’s iconic status that Myanmar has remained high on the international agenda.
“After 22 years since she entered politics, she has become an institution and so the public will rally around her as long as she’s alive,” said Maung Zarni, a research fellow on Myanmar at the London School of Economics.
However, while millions still look to “The Lady” for inspiration, some pro-democracy activists are questioning whether her refusal to compromise has helped their cause.
“The boycott was ill-advised as it is, but the way it was arrived at makes things even worse,” said Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner living in Myanmar.
“It’s not just relations with the regime that are being affected — those with the democrats and with her former colleagues are also going down the drain,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest -political allies reacted angrily after a group of former NLD members broke away and set up a new party — the National Democratic Force — to contest the vote, accusing them of betraying their colleagues.