In 1988 she was living in England, but had traveled to Burma to visit her sick mother. When a student uprising broke out, she became a figurehead, and soon a leader, because of her ancestry: She is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, founding father of the Burmese Army and the nation, who was assassinated before Burma won independence in 1948. He is a national hero, after whom avenues are named.
Aung San Suu Kyi draws strongly on this legacy for her extraordinary popular support across the nation. And on the foundation of this positive name recognition she has built her own reputation from a powerful mixture of charm, charisma, and moral fortitude in resisting dictatorship and refusing exile, even as her British husband lay dying in Oxford in 1999.
"Gen. Aung San had two heirs: his daughter and the Burmese military," says a European diplomat who asked not to be identified by name. "Aung San Suu Kyi wants to unite them and embody their union; she does not present herself as an enemy of the Army as an institution, just of the way they have behaved."
Indeed, the almost saintly reputation she enjoys masks an occasionally authoritarian streak, say some who know her. "When important decisions have to be made quickly, she must act like a captain on the battlefield," says Myo Nan Naung Thein, a sometime aide to the NLD leader. "But discussion and debate are impossible – almost nobody else [in the party leadership] ever says no to her."
The NLD certainly has organizing power, but there is no doubt that the party owes its popularity almost entirely to its leader. It has no political platform beyond vague calls for national reconciliation and the rule of law, and little leadership depth. Though Aung San Suu Kyi is gathering a younger generation of advisers, veterans still fill key party positions.
"I met the 'uncles' recently," Professor Steinberg recalls of a discussion with the NLD top brass. "I was probably the youngest man in the room, and I'm 83."