KAWHMU, Myanmar » The pastel-painted vocational school hacked out of the bamboo jungle is a long way from the international salons where Myanmar’s symbol of resistance, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now an established figure.
Here in her parliamentary district, a network of poor rice-growing hamlets, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate played local politician: opening a hotel training school that she hopes will catapult talented students out of the fields and into jobs as maids, cooks and butlers in Myanmar’s booming tourist industry.
"Our society wants to have academia," she said to a small crowd in Oxford-inflected English, a remnant of her university days in Britain. "But we have to be practical. It’s a matter of equipping our children with skills that see them through life."
Few doubt that Suu Kyi has done well for her constituents, delivering electricity where none existed, using her cachet to draw hoteliers from Thailand and Switzerland to invest in the school.
But as President Barack Obama arrives for a visit to Myanmar, where he is expected to meet with Suu Kyi Friday, human rights advocates and even members of her political party are raising questions about her performance in the broader political arena.
In the four years since she emerged from house arrest as a world-famous champion of democracy, Suu Kyi, 69, has hesitated to take on many of her country’s biggest issues, critics say, and has failed those who expected a staunch human rights advocate. She has instead emphasized a general call for rule of law, a critical issue for a country emerging from a half-century of dictatorship but one, they say, that falls short of addressing particular grievances.
Since entering Parliament two years ago, she has been reluctant to speak out about abuses by government forces against civilians in the ethnic conflict in Kachin state, saying both sides were responsible for killings. As chairwoman of a panel investigating land disputes between poor farmers and a copper mining company accused of unfairly taking their land, she sided with the company. Perhaps most surprising of all, she has refused to admonish the government for its harsh policies against the Rohingya Muslim minority, policies Obama criticized last week.
Those policies, along with episodes of deadly violence against the Rohingya by radical Buddhists, have driven hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from their homes and confined more than 100,000 to squalid camps.
In public comments, Suu Kyi has equated the plight of the Rohingya with that of the region’s Buddhists, saying it was important "not to forget violence is committed by both sides."
Human rights advocates, who argue that most of the violence has been committed by the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya minority, say they are astonished that she has abdicated what they see as her moral responsibility to shine a light on obvious human rights abuses. She has remained immune to appeals from U.S. officials, who say they have suggested on a number of occasions that she speak out on the Rohingya.
"It’s not the political authority of her office people are asking her to wield," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "It is her moral authority. It is her authority as an iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner that she has failed to wield."
As the opposition leader in a Parliament dominated by the military and former members of the military, which ruled the country for nearly five decades, her ability to steer government policy is limited. But she has raised her voice on some issues, particularly in opposition to the military’s power to veto constitutional amendments, a brave stance that wins her plaudits but that so far has not succeeded.
Her pet project is the parliamentary Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee, an advisory panel on one of the country’s central problems, corruption in the judiciary and the police. Next month, two centers to train police officers and judges, sponsored at her panel’s urging by the United Nations Development Program, will begin operations, an aide said.
Her defenders say she is doing great work under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. "She has tried to change the country, but she can’t because it is a government still dominated by the military," said Myint Myint Khin Pe, the founder of the Free Funeral Service Society, a charity that organizes low-cost funerals for the poor. "She’s very intelligent but alone."
In response to criticism that she could do more to quicken the pace of reform, she has blamed the ruling party for dragging its feet.
But people who have come to know her in the last four years say they are mystified as to why she has remained so muted, even in her freedom. Some see her positions, and her silences, as political expedience.
"She should speak out about the Rohingya to prevent us Burmese from being racist," said Ko Tar, an environmental and education advocate. "It is a political calculation that she does not."
In many respects, he said, she tends to side with the elite.
"On the copper mine, she made a strategic calculation not to anger the company," he said. "She could not feel the suffering of the people."
When environmental activists campaigned against a Chinese-built dam, she made anodyne statements about the Irrawaddy River being an essential waterway but declined to get involved, he said, and she has refused to be drawn into the effort to decentralize the rigid education system. "She is silent on education; there is no discussion in the Parliament on education," he said.
Women’s groups concerned about a recent bill to ban interfaith marriages asked for her help, said Zin Mar Aung, a member of Suu Kyi’s political party. "We were threatened by the ultranationalists and the monks over our stand against the law," she said. "She told us to inform the police, but the police are useless."
Suu Kyi depends for much of her advice on a small kitchen Cabinet dominated by two women she has known through long friendships, a Western diplomat said. One of them is Ohmar Moe Myint, whose husband, a powerful businessman, was on the U.S. sanctions list until 2012. The other is her chief of staff, Dr. Tin Mary Aung, a medical doctor and a Rakhine, the ethnic group fighting the Rohingya in western Myanmar. Some diplomats say Tin Mary Aung may influence Suu Kyi’s decision to keep a low profile on the Rohingyas.
Suu Kyi has granted few interviews with foreign media recently, and people who work with her said it would not be possible to interview her for this article. But when she has responded to criticism, she has not backed down from controversial positions.
"I have never done anything just for popularity," she said after being heckled by angry farmers over the copper mine last year. "Sometimes politicians have to do things that people dislike."
Questions about where she stands are all the more urgent given that she could wield considerable power after elections next year, which her party, the National League for Democracy, is expected to win.
She remains a national hero, and even disillusioned supporters say they would like her to be president. But the country’s 2008 constitution bars candidates with a foreign-born spouse or foreign-born children from seeking the top office, a prohibition that seems to have been written with her in mind. Her late husband, Michael Aris, was a British citizen; her two adult sons were born in Britain.
Diplomats say she may have settled in her own mind for the post of speaker of the House, also a powerful position.
At the end of the school-opening ceremony, journalists crowded around, pressing questions. They wanted to know about the ruling party’s opposition to changing the c constitution and about the assassination days earlier of a Myanmar journalist, Ko Par Gyi, who worked for her as a bodyguard in the late 1980s.
"This is not the time," she said, waving them off as she slid her slight frame into a white four-wheel-drive vehicle and drove away toward her home in Yangon.