Framed photographs of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, cover the walls of his small living room, but U Myo Khin, a longtime democracy activist, has harsh words for the woman he idolized for years as a crusader against dictatorship.
“The goal is still democracy, but her behavior is authoritarian,” said Mr. Myo Khin, whose credentials in the democracy movement include 12 years as a political prisoner. “She is losing people like us who have been strong supporters for a very long time.”
It was taboo for many years among democracy activists in Myanmar to speak ill of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a global icon of democracy and a symbol of resistance against oppression when Myanmar was ruled by a brutal military junta. Any criticism of The Lady, as she is known here, was seen as strengthening the hand of the generals.
But as landmark elections approach — a contest described by some as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for democratic forces — Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is being openly criticized by activists, commentators and intellectuals. They accuse her of a my-way-or-the-highway approach to managing her party. They question her decision to ally herself with a now-marginalized former general. And they say she is missing an opportunity to build a grand coalition of democratic forces, including minority ethnic groups whose support may be crucial after the election.
“She has made enemies with the people she needs,” said U Sithu Aung Myint, a widely read columnist with a reputation for nonpartisan commentary. “She lacks strategic thinking, and she is not a clever politician.”
For a woman who sacrificed the better part of two decades fighting dictatorship, much of that time under house arrest, it is deeply paradoxical that a word increasingly used to describe her is authoritarian, even among her closest allies in her party, the National League for Democracy.
Asked what he thought of the term, U Nyan Win, the party’s spokesman, did not hesitate.
“I agree,” he said.
But he insisted that her top-down handling of party affairs did not diminish her legacy and leadership in pushing for democratic change.
Burmese political culture has long featured hierarchical decision-making, he said, and her party is no exception. He painted a picture of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who turned 70 in June, as overworked, struggling to delegate power and not always getting accurate information about the day-to-day decisions within the party.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi declined requests to be interviewed for this article.
Her party came under its heaviest criticism in recent months during the selection process of candidates for the Nov. 8 election. Some of the leading lights of the democracy movement, former political prisoners known as the 88 Generation, were largely passed over. The party’s leadership also overruled the recommendations and nominations of many local chapters, putting in place their own candidates for the election. Those decisions spawned a rare public display of anger and defections. A number of defiant members of the party were expelled.
As the controversy grew, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s response came across to some as imperious and condescending.
“The responsibility of the people is simply to vote for the party, not the name of the candidate,” she was quoted as saying by Radio Free Asia.
“The N.L.D. is a political party, and we have rules,” she said. “If you can’t follow these rules, you can’t work for the N.L.D.”
The party also ordered candidates not to speak with the media, saying it could jeopardize their chances during the vetting process by the election commission. Critics saw it as a gag order.
At a time when the party needs unity more than ever, stalwarts like Mr. Myo Khin, the longtime democracy activist, are angry. His involvement in the movement began 27 years ago when a fellow proponent of democracy was shot by the military and died in his arms.
When the party leadership passed him over as the candidate in his home district in Yangon, he quit the party and signed up to run as an independent.
Another longtime party activist in an adjoining district, Daw Khin Phone Wai, 44, also left the party and is running as an independent. She still admires Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi but says she worries that she is increasingly seen as detached from the people.
“She has knowledge about international things, and she speaks foreign languages,” Ms. Khin Phone Wai said. “But she cannot relate to ordinary people. People are facing hardship every day, and she can’t feel their needs. She’s not in touch with the people at the bottom.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters overseas have been dismayed by her silence and inaction over the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who are being excluded from voting. But in Myanmar, in a measure of the difficulties of pleasing her admirers, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi faces the opposite problem: She is portrayed by her enemies as too friendly to Muslims, a major political liability in a country with strong anti-Muslim sentiment.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, Aung San, still has what is probably the most recognizable name and face in the country, and the mention of her often elicits automatic admiration. A key question debated among political analysts is whether complaints about her management style have trickled down to voters.
Analysts believe that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi will continue to benefit from the popular hatred of the military, which built up over decades of misrule. But gauging her popularity has proved difficult. In a recent opinion poll, half of respondents refused to disclose whom they would vote for.
U Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said that the democracy movement has strong support in cities and towns but that winning in rural areas, which make up 70 percent of the elected seats in Parliament, will be more challenging.
The freedoms introduced by the military-backed government of President Thein Sein, including the ending of direct media censorship, have lifted a once palpable sense of fear in the cities. But in rural areas the military and their proxies still retain significant control.
“The level of fear for the authorities is very high in the village areas,” Mr. Yan Myo Thein said.
Under the current system the deck is stacked against the democracy movement: The country’s Constitution, written by the military junta before it handed over power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, allocates one quarter of the seats in Parliament to the military. This means democratic forces, if they do not ally themselves with the army, must gain two-thirds of the elected seats to have a simple majority. Around 40 percent of the seats are in minority ethnic areas, which tend to back their own parties, and democracy activists lament that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has not formed closer alliances with the groups.
The military’s top general chooses the ministers of home affairs, defense and border security, no matter who wins the election.
Moreover, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by a clause in the Constitution that disallows anyone with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president, a rule that some say was written with her in mind. Her husband, who died in 1999, was a British citizen, and so are their two sons.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics acknowledge the uneven playing field but say she has made a bad situation worse by antagonizing the military. Her alliance with Thura Shwe Mann, a former general in the junta who leads one faction of the military establishment but is widely disliked by other factions, rattled the military’s top brass. Earlier this month Mr. Shwe Mann was purged as the head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party by the president and his backers in the military.
Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, an independent member of the Yangon regional Parliament, does not trust the military, but says Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi should be courting them because the military brass has veto power over major changes to the Constitution that democratic forces desire.
“She must get on well with the military,” Ms. Nyo Nyo Thin said. “Without the military in agreement we can never amend the Constitution.”
Ms. Nyo Nyo Thin predicts a messy election followed by months of horse trading among ethnic groups, democratic forces and the military.
She says she has been “confused” by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s decisions in recent months.
Is the Nobel laureate authoritarian?
“We have many stories,” Ms. Nyo Nyo Thin said. “But this is not the time to speak out.”