By JOCELYN GECKER, Associated Press
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — On Yangon's teeming streets, 2012 is the year of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Her once-banished image now appears everywhere, on T-shirts, keychains and coffee mugs. Pirated copies of "The Lady" — the big screen version of Suu Kyi's life — are the best-selling DVD. And in this devoutly Buddhist country, calendars with Suu Kyi's pictures are now outselling even the Lord Buddha.
In just over a year since her release from house arrest, the 66-year-old opposition leader has made the once unthinkable leap into Myanmar's mainstream, transforming from political prisoner to political campaigner. Now she's trying to take another big step: from icon to elected official.
For many people who put their dreams on hold during decades of military rule, Suu Kyi is seen as a savior and the solution to the country's problems — creating expectations that even she warns can't be met anytime soon.
If the pro-democracy icon wins the April 1 vote, she will become a junior and minority member of parliament, meaning that Suu Kyi's greatest challenge would be her lack of power to make any real change, at least for the foreseeable future.
"The road ahead is rough and tough. Democracy is hard to achieve," Suu Kyi told a massive crowd last weekend in the city of Mandalay, where more than 100,000 people packed the streets to see her.
Swarmed by a sea of humanity at campaign outings, Suu Kyi has warned that she is not "a wizard" and can't magically introduce her dreams of democracy, peace and more freedom. She tells the crowds she cannot make any campaign promises.
But her appearance upstages her words. In response the crowd screams: "We love you Mother Suu!" — a name she is affectionately called even by elders because she has the image of having mothered the country through its dark, difficult times.
"Her presence is electrifying. It's not just a Nelson Mandela, a Gandhi, an Obama but it has an element of Marilyn Monroe and a rock star," said Maung Zarni, a Myanmar expert and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. "But can her ability to mobilize public support be translated into concrete change? I doubt it."
As the dignified, determined Nobel Peace laureate travels the country campaigning for a seat in parliament, there is a sense of euphoria in Myanmar. The pace of change has been frenetic since a nominally civilian government took office a year ago, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, relaxing media censorship, approving Suu Kyi's candidacy and allowing massive crowds at her campaign rallies. What might normally be a little by-election — to fill one-tenth of the seats in parliament — has taken on enormous significance.
A victory for Suu Kyi would be highly symbolic. It would anoint her with an elected office and a voice in government for the first time in her quarter century as Myanmar's opposition leader.
Even if Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy opposition party win all 48 seats up for grabs they would only have a small minority. The military is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in the 440-seat lower house and the remainder is dominated by the main pro-military party.
"Parliament is not about 60 million people behind Suu Kyi. It's about who has the largest number of seats in Parliament," Zarni said.
Critics say this would put Suu Kyi right where the government wants her: On a pedestal, as poster child for "the new Myanmar" but politically neutralized.
There remains great skepticism about the sincerity of the new government and Suu Kyi herself has called for cautious optimism, saying recently that "ultimate power still rests with the army ... we cannot say that we have got to a point where there will be no danger of a U-turn."
Of all the disorienting changes, Suu Kyi's public prominence is perhaps the most vivid.
Every morning in Yangon, people crowd into the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party, a rundown two-story house that has become part-Suu Kyi souvenir shop and part-spiritual Mecca for her supporters.
"She is the person who can make my dreams come true," said 41-year-old Koko Lwin, a poor man in disheveled clothes who took a 10-hour bus ride from central Myanmar, went straight to the party headquarters and bought a Suu Kyi T-shirt. "She can make this country good. She can give me a good life."