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."
Sales are helping to fund the party's campaign.
At a recent art show in Mandalay, organizers sold about 10 million kyat ($12,500) in artwork and 20 million kyat ($25,000) worth of Suu Kyi T-shirts, key chains and calendars, said Win Tin, a former journalist and poet who helped found Suu Kyi's party in 1988 and then spent 19 years as a political prisoner. As he entered the party headquarters, supporters filmed him with cell phones.
"Ten months ago, nobody would have worn a Daw Suu Kyi T-shirt," said Win Tin. Daw is a term of respect. "People are getting bolder, and not only in support of Daw Suu and the National League for Democracy. But against the government."
Vendors on Yangon's busiest streets say no T-shirt, DVD or calendar is selling better these days than those featuring Suu Kyi.
"Even pretty actresses and Buddha can't compete with Suu Kyi this year," said U Myint, a vendor on a street lined with stalls selling calendars.
"The Lady" starring Michelle Yeoh hasn't yet been released in the U.S. but it's a huge hit here, chuckles Cho Gyi, 25, who sells pirated movies near Sule Pagoda where soldiers gunned down Buddhist monks and other anti-junta protesters in 2007. He wears a Suu Kyi pendant around his neck. "To me, she's like a mother. I love her."
For years, the former military junta tried to make the people forget Suu Kyi. They locked her in her lakeside villa and closed her upscale Yangon street to traffic. They padlocked her opposition party's offices and banned her picture from newspapers. People dared not utter her name in public, referring only in hushed tones to "The Lady."
Some have described Suu Kyi as an accidental leader, but many in Myanmar see her as part of a national narrative.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of the country's independence hero, Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated by rivals when she was just 2.
In 1988 at the age of 43, Suu Kyi returned to her homeland after two decades abroad to nurse her dying mother just as an uprising erupted against the military regime. She was thrust into the forefront of the pro-democracy movement.
A gifted orator with steely grace and charisma, she inherited her father's fortitude. Her ability to capture the hearts of the Burmese people was why the junta locked her up after brutally crushing the 1988 protests. She stayed under house arrest for 15 of the next 23 years.
Some observers fear Myanmar's people will be disappointed in the new parliament when it fails to quickly deliver on their expectations. After years of isolation, Myanmar needs a top-to-bottom overhaul of its economy, education, health and banking systems and a plan to unify the country's ethnic groups after years of guerrilla warfare with the junta.
But that disappointment is unlikely to dim Suu Kyi's star among the Burmese people, analysts say.
"They identify her with democracy and freedom and with resistance, and they will continue to do that whether she manages to get into parliament, become prime minister, or not," said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra.
Zarni agrees: "If nothing concrete can be delivered in the next two to five years, the public will fault the regime. She can do no wrong."
Nonetheless, there are fears of what the future holds for Suu Kyi.
On a recent evening in Yangon, a group of former political prisoners gathered near the country's gold-domed Shwedagon Pagoda — without a police officer in sight. They wondered about the prospects of a country that has wrapped its hopes and dreams around one person.
"What we all expect is full democracy and true human rights. This will take a long time," said Aung Tun, 49, who spent a decade in prison for writing a book about student activism.
"During that time, I am concerned that somebody who is impatient with the slow pace of change might take action and assassinate Daw Suu just like Mohandas Gandhi," he said, drawing grim nods from the group.
"At the moment, there is no one who could replace her."