It's for that reason that she and her supporters have vowed to make amending that constitution one of their political priorities once they join parliament. Yet it's hard to imagine how they'll be able to make any headway on the issue -- especially given the dominant presence in parliament of the military and the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD's only hope is that they can persuade individual members that amending the constitution is in their own best interest. Ex-student activist and political prisoner Min Ko Naing says that many members of the pro-regime party are "sitting on the fence," waiting to see how far the government is willing to allow positive change: "So now we have to encourage the reformists."
Don't hold your breath. The secretary general of the USDP, U Htay Oo, says that he sees little need to amend the constitution, and for the moment there is little visible indication that anyone in the pro-regime party, the vast civil service bureaucracy, or the military is prepared to break ranks. That could change, though, as the effects of genuine political competition begin to be felt. The past few months have seen a marked uptick in the willingness of members of parliament to challenge the government on issues ranging from the budget to peace talks with Burma's rebellious national minorities.
The biggest wild card factor here is likely to be the Lady herself. Perhaps one of the most startling changes to come over this country in recent months has been the shocking proliferation of her image and words both rigorously banned for so many years. Now every other street vendor appears to have Aung San Suu Kyi swag in stock -- a tangible reflection of her enduring star power and her deep-seated popularity with regular citizens. Ko Ko Gyi, another ex-student activist, argues that the number of seats the NLD wins in the coming election is ultimately irrelevant. "This is not a quantity issue," he says. "Aung San Suu Kyi can make her voice louder than any other member of parliament."
When I attended today's press conference, I understood why: The Lady knows her stuff. Appearing before dozens of journalists today under a sweltering tent on the lawn of the famous lakeside villa where she spent nearly 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, she deftly fielded questions on everything from the president ("I'm confident that he genuinely wishes for democratic reform") to her objectives in the election ("It's not power that we're trying to win, it's democracy for our people"). She strove to emphasize that the NLD's participation in the April 1 vote is merely one part of a broader strategy to empower Burma's citizenry by raising their "political awareness" -- particularly with an eye to the next general election, set for three years from now. Her trademark humor was also on display. "Yes, I've been feeling delicate," she said when asked about her health. "Any tough questions and I will faint straight away."
Yet the flip side of her indisputably immense charisma is the nearly religious fervor that it inspires among her supporters. "The people think of her as a demigod," says Khin Maung Shwe of the National Democratic Forum, a small opposition party that is nonetheless one of the NLD's political rivals. "They think she can change everything." And many of her supporters worry that her outsized political brand means that the fate of Burmese democracy is inextricably entwined with her personal survival -- particularly given that the NLD has few second-tier leaders (not to mention credible representatives of the younger generation) who can ever hope to approach her in stature.
Will she find a way to continue her quest for greater democracy despite the extraordinary obstacles that lie ahead? Perhaps equally important, can she live up to the impossibly high expectations harbored by so many of her supporters? Back on 97th Street, one of her fans contemplates the question. "This party [the NLD] is only for the people," says Ye Htooh, a 51-year-old sailor whose job has taken him to many places where life is far better than in his beleaguered homeland. "We have to vote for them. They cannot do anything for us in this parliament. But they can talk for us. Even if there are only a few of them, they can talk for us. And nobody else can do that."