Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi faces one of the most serious challenges to her political career amid heavy criticism for recommending the continuation of a controversial China-backed copper mine beset with environmental and other problems.
But the Nobel laureate, who is eyeing the country's presidency in 2015, may emerge even stronger if she manages to ride out the escalating crisis over the Letpadaung mine in northern Burma, some experts say.
The crisis highlights the broader issues gripping Burma as it embraces reforms: the bitter struggle between reformists and the powerful military, the role of dominant Chinese investments, and greater scrutiny over key projects as well as the positions of government and opposition leaders.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, the turmoil has thrust her into the limelight again as she makes the transition from a democracy icon and dissident to the leader of the country's biggest opposition party and its most high profile parliamentarian.
It was a rare sight as the daughter of independence hero Aung San was heckled this week by villagers living around the copper mine site in Sarlingyi township in Sagaing division while on a journey there to explain her parliamentary commission's decision to push ahead with the project over villagers' objections.
She was appointed head of the commission to determine the fate of the copper mine by President Thein Sein, who came under fire after authorities used brutal force to suppress a massive demonstration against the project last November.
"I think she was put in between a rock and hard place in taking on this role to begin with," said Kelley Currie, a former Asia policy adviser in the U.S. State Department. "Some people have said that it was an intentional and savvy move by the government to put her in charge of this."
But even if Aung San Suu Kyi was made to decide on the fate of the billion-dollar project as a trap, she may still have the last laugh, said Currie, now an Asia expert at the Washington-based The Project 2049 Institute.
Some of the key findings of the commission, in fact, provide "tools" for the villagers to legally push back against the expansion of the mining project, a joint venture between the Burmese military's Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Wan Bao Company, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer, she said.
In its report released this week, the commission clearly stated that the project can continue—but with transparency and "adjustments," including better environmental safeguards and higher compensation paid to local residents, all of which could drive a big hole in the pockets of Chinese investors.
The report found that land in the mining area is worth 1.5 million kyat (U.S. $1,730) per acre, much more than the 5 to 80 kyat (up to U.S. $0.09) per acre that had been offered to residents under an old law dating from the rule of Burma's previous military junta.
"It will be interesting to watch and see over the next three to six months whether Burma is going to be able to get the Chinese investors to clean up their act in order to operate there and compensate the villagers and whether they will decide that it is worth it," Currie said.
"The Chinese company may say when they sit down and do the math that it's not worth it."
Both Wan Bao company and UMEHL have said they will comply with the commission's recommendations while the government has formed a committee to ensure that reforms are implemented before the project proceeds.
Still, Aung San Suu Kyi has to convince the villagers that the commission had set the record straight on the mine project, which has been dogged by land-grabbing allegations from its birth.
The villagers had expected her to put an end to the mine's operations and call for action against officials who ordered the bloody crackdown against protesters of the project in November in which police used smoke bombs laden with phosphorous—an agent generally used in war, causing severe burns to more than 100 people.
But the commission had no mandate to seek such action, although it faulted the police force for failing to understand how the smoke bombs worked and recommended that police receive riot-control training.
Aung San Suu Kyi is in a dilemma because she cannot afford to go on a full scale offensive against the Burmese military, whose conglomerate partly owns the mine, as it may torpedo her hopes of running for the presidency in 2015, some experts said.
"She wants to be president, it's no secret, and in order to be president, she has to develop the trust of the military because they are the ones who can arrange to change the constitution," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Washington-based Georgetown University.
"In addition to having good relations with China, which any Burmese president will want to have, the other half of the compromise [has to be with the mine owner] the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, which is a military conglomerate," Steinberg said.
"So, to undercut that would be in effect to help destroy her credibility with the military, it seems to me."
Burma’s constitution, written in 2008 under the former military junta, guarantees the military one-quarter of parliamentary seats, allowing it to declare a state of emergency and to dismiss a democratically elected government.
It also bars Aung San Suu Kyi—whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party is expected to win the 2015 elections—from the presidency on the grounds that her sons possess foreign citizenship and her late husband was a foreigner.
Steinberg acknowledged that Aung San Suu Kyi still has to make efforts to address environmental, compensation, and rights issues dogging the mine project to maintain her credibility.
"But she is in a difficult position—she can be a moral force or she can be a politician but she can't do both because in any democracy or representative government, a politician must make compromises that undercut their moral position," he said.
Her critics have accused her of being too conciliatory with the military and not going far enough to push for reforms.
“Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal. She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake,” former political prisoner and senior NLD figure Win Tin told the Washington Post this week, referring to a lake in the center of Burma's largest city Rangoon.
“She thinks she can persuade all the military leaders to become her friends and come to her side. But people suffered a lot [under military rule]. Without pushing the military out, we won’t achieve any democracy, any human rights.”
But Win Tin conceded that he respects Aung San Suu Kyi and strongly believes in her commitment to democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi has also been criticized for stressing in her commission's recommendation that honoring the mine contract was necessary to keep good relations with China because of the mine’s Chinese joint venture partner.
“We don't want to work for Wan Bao Company,” one woman shouted at Aung San Suu Kyi at one of her meetings with the villagers. "Even if they give many jobs to us, we don’t want to be the servants of the Chinese.”
A crowd surrounding her shouted, “Does Aung San Suu Kyi stand for the local people, or for Wan Bao company?”
Anger over Chinese investments in Burma have been growing since the nominally civilian government took over from the military junta two years ago.
The copper mine dispute echoes vehement opposition to a Chinese-backed mega-dam that was suspended by President Thein Sein in September 2011 after a public outcry.
Aung San Suu Kyi told protesters that the commission had considered the best possible courses of action and that scrapping the mine project would risk turning international investment away from Burma.
Last statistics from Beijing indicate a 90 percent plunge in Chinese foreign direct investments to Burma last year as Chinese investors become jittery over the increasing public scrutiny and accountability of projects, analysts said.
"It's not an insignificant issue when your biggest foreign direct investment dropped over 90 percent year-on-year. That is huge," Currie said.
More generally, Aung San Suu Kyi has also taken flak over the past few months for deliberately side-stepping several key issues, such as the raging ethnic conflict in the country and the abuses against some 800,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims.
The resolution of these issues, activists say, would help achieve the democratic transition she has long fought for.
"She has not been vocal over a number of issues but whether this marks a major a shift in her policies as an opposition leader trying to become part of the establishment, it's too early to tell," said Mohan Malik, an expert on Asian security at the Hawaii-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS).
But he conceded that her popularity remains intact, saying she remains the only formidable opposition leader who can sweep the 2015 elections despite many question marks, such as whether the election will be free and fair and how it plays out under a new constitution.
Before she left the copper mine site on Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi was asked by some reporters to comment on the hostile reaction she received.
“I have never done anything just for popularity,” she said, according to the New York Times. “Sometimes politicians have to do things that people dislike.”