Is Myanmar about to rejoin the world?
One of the three most closed and isolated countries in the world is opening up. The long-repressed Burmese say it's unbelievable - but they want to believe in a new Myanmar.
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Some regime opponents remain skeptical. "I know these people," says former Air Force Capt. Zaw Nyunt, who joined the 1988 uprising and then spent six years in exile in Thailand. "This is a period of soft political winds, but it won't last long. When they've got the right engagement with the West ... the winds will change."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Myanmar Edges Into the Open
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Most of those hoping for change, though, are focusing more on what use they can make of the new political space that has opened up, now that the generals appear to have decided that "politics" is not a threat to Myanmar's security.
Most dramatically they voted overwhelmingly for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in the April 1 elections, giving the party 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats at stake and propelling Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, where she had spent 15 of the past 20 years, to a leading national role.
"This is a free country. We have a right to vote," said Win Win Aye, a housewife explaining why she had gone to the polls. "Aung San Suu Kyi is like a mother to us."
The by-election results will not change the formal balance of power in parliament, where the military's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) holds the lion's share of the 664 seats. The NLD will not have the votes to amend the Constitution, which the military wrote in 2008 to ensure its continued power: Chapter 1 guarantees the Army's "national political leadership role" and 25 percent of the members of parliament are military officers, a large enough bloc to prevent the majority needed for major constitutional change.
"Essential power will remain with the military, and they will play a central role for the foreseeable future," says David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and doyen of American Myanmar scholars. "I don't think Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to change that."
But the government will no longer be able to treat her as a "nonperson," nor does it want to ignore her any longer; it needs her to play an active role because Western governments will listen primarily to her advice as they consider lifting sanctions.
Aung San Suu Kyi needs the military, too, given its central role in modern Burmese history and its reluctance to return completely to the barracks. "It is particularly important that the military should be behind our reform process," she said just before the elections. "We hope to win the military over to understand that we have to work together."
Curiously, given her bitter experience at the hands of the previous military junta, she may be just the person to rally her former jailers.
Saintly reputation with authoritarian streak
Aung San Suu Kyi is an accidental politician, though she has honed her skills – and her meditation technique – even during long periods of house arrest in her family home, set amid spreading lawns on a small lake in central Yangon.
In 1988 she was living in England, but had traveled to Burma to visit her sick mother. When a student uprising broke out, she became a figurehead, and soon a leader, because of her ancestry: She is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, founding father of the Burmese Army and the nation, who was assassinated before Burma won independence in 1948. He is a national hero, after whom avenues are named.
Aung San Suu Kyi draws strongly on this legacy for her extraordinary popular support across the nation. And on the foundation of this positive name recognition she has built her own reputation from a powerful mixture of charm, charisma, and moral fortitude in resisting dictatorship and refusing exile, even as her British husband lay dying in Oxford in 1999.