Aung San Suu Kyi for president in 2015?

Aung San Suu Kyi said firmly at the World Economic Forum that she wants to be president of Myanmar and pushed back on the recent criticism over her muted stand on religious tensions.

Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks to reporters during a news conference at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia, at the Myanmar International Convention Centre in Naypyitaw Thursday.

A year ago, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi made her first trip outside Myanmar after about two decades of house arrest, traveling to Thailand amid much fanfare for a World Economic Forum summit. 

This year, the summit came to "Daw Suu," as she is often referred to here, and she did not disappoint, making headlines at home and abroad with her firmest declaration yet that she wants to be president of this former pariah state.

"I want to run for president and I'm quite frank about it," she said at a debate organized by the BBC – an unusual event in Myanmar – and then again at a press conference.

With an audience of foreign business officials and leaders watching in Naypyidaw, the leader of the National League for Democracy also pushed back aggressively for the first time against recent criticism, and attempted to shift the focus toward improving the lot of Myanmar's largely poor population.  

The event underscored the stiff expectations that Aung San Suu Kyi would face as president, both at home and abroad, if Myanmar's military allow a Constitutional amendment permitting her to run. 

"No one seems to be very satisfied with me," she said. "I have not been silent ... I cannot doctor my answers to please everybody."

And for all the democracy in the world, Aung San Suu Kyi's fate as a future president could depend on one thing: the economy.

Myanmar's economic potential – and the hurdles it faces – was a constant theme throughout the conference, which was held in the gleaming convention center in the sprawling but sparse capital of Naypyidaw. The city was built from scratch a decade ago and features scores of huge government buildings and hotels with reliable power. Naypyidaw is a stark contrast to Myanmar's largely poor, unelectrified countryside (not to mention the World Economic Forum's annual upscale summit in Davos, Switzerland).

The hugely popular Aung San Suu Kyi was in high demand, though she has disappointed some admirers in recent months with her support for the military's continued role in the government; her campaign contributions from connected businessmen; and her fairly muted response to anti-Muslim violence throughout this majority Buddhist country. It's prompted speculation that the woman long viewed as Myanmar's moral conscience has now become a pragmatic politician.

She rejected that assessment Thursday, saying: "I don't feel a hostage to the political circumstances of the day,” adding that she does not want to aggravate the situation by pointing fingers. She stressed that it's most important that the "rule of law" prevail, and that perpetrators be brought to justice.

U Myat Nyarna Soe, a doctor and NLD member who represents Yangon in the upper house of Myanmar's legislature, says Aung San Suu Kyi's stance makes sense. "The religious conflict is like a spark of a fire, but the true origin is poverty," he says.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been critical of the government's implementation of economic reforms of late. But some in Myanmar say privately that they want to see more of an economic plan from her. 

And as she fielded questions on what a potential presidency might be like, she focused repeatedly on youth unemployment and the need for the government to accelerate the implementation of economic reforms. She noted that while the number of cars on the streets and newspapers in the newsstands are increasing, "these are not accessible to the great majority of the population."

Of course, there is first the task of amending Myanmar's Constitution, which currently bars Aung San Suu Kyi from being president because her sons are British citizens. Doing that would require support from the country's military, which holds an effective veto in the legislature.

But Aung San Suu Kyi has an economic message for them, as well.

"The majority of our soldiers," she said, "are not wealthy."

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