A nation stunted by economic decline and political strife goes to the polls Nov. 7 under the gaze of its authoritarian rulers. The multiparty elections are supposed to restore civilian control to Burma (Myanmar) after 50 years of military dominance.
The election, the first in 20 years, is a landmark of sorts for Burma. But equally significant is the scheduled release, six days later, of Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratic icon and probably the world's most recognizable political prisoner. Her current term of house arrest ends Nov. 13 and many expect her to walk free, albeit under the threat of rearrest.
What Ms. Suu Kyi says and does next could have broad consequences for Burma's political transition and for its critics in the West, including the Obama administration, whose stance on Burma is heavily influenced by her nonviolent cause. Although absent from state media, she is revered by ordinary Burmese as a symbol of hope.
Perhaps the biggest question is how Suu Kyi will view the election, which her National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted on her advice. Some NLD members set up a new party, the National Democratic Front (NDF), that is participating in the vote and insists that a flawed election is better than none. The NLD has tried to vilify NDF members as "traitors" and is urging a voter boycott.
While wary of publicly criticizing "the lady," as she is known, opposition figures say they are deeply frustrated by the likelihood that she will publicly condemn the election and those who participate. They argue that, on the contrary, her endorsement could help Burma begin a slow transition to a sort of semidemocracy.
"When she is released, she should get to know our party. This is the only way out for our country and people," says Khin Maung Shwe, a leader of the NDF, and a former political prisoner. He says Suu Kyi would remain a "symbol of democracy" in Burma. "Our goal is the same but our means are different."
Radically changed environment
Thant Myint-U, an independent Burmese historian, says that if Suu Kyi is released, she would enter a "radically different" environment from 2002, when she was last set free before being detained again the following year. One major shift is the arrival of new opposition parties, many that are likely to be represented in parliament, and a more vibrant civil society. "Whatever else, it will be impossible for her to simply resume her past agenda as leader of the NLD, pressing for dialogue with a junta that will no longer exist."
The daughter of independence leader General Aung San, Suu Kyi has never held public office and spent much of her early life overseas. A visit to Rangoon in 1988 coincided with a popular uprising that propelled her to a leadership role. She was jailed in 1989, but the NLD swept an election held the following year. The military later annulled the result.
Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 21 years under detention at her lakeside family home in Rangoon, the former capital. Only her party's lawyer and her doctor have regular access to her; she is allowed books and magazines, and listens to the radio, but has no phone line or Internet access.
Critics say isolation may have blinded her to subtle shifts within Burma's repressive society and the rise of a new breed of pragmatists, who are willing to compromise with the military and push for policy reforms, a stance that is anathema to NLD hard-liners. By restricting her access to such moderates, the junta has reinforced her rigid thinking and that of the NLD, say these critics.
Some accuse Suu Kyi of pursuing a failed strategy in negotiations with the military, encouraging Burma's isolation from the West, and nurturing a "personality cult" within the NLD. "I tell her, please be flexible. Please compromise," says Yan Kyaw, an independent candidate for parliament. He shakes his head. "Politics is a dirty game."
Supporters argue that the blame properly lies with the junta led by General Than Shwe, who has refused to negotiate with her. Some accuse the pragmatists of seeking to marginalize Suu Kyi so that their own allies can reap the benefits in the next government.
Justin Wintle, the author of "Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi," said in an e-mail that while she has been inflexible on some issues, her brand of morality offers a respite from Burma's cynical power struggles. "Aung San Suu Kyi's untainted constancy is a legacy that will be remembered and cherished among many Burmese long after she is gone, and that is no mean feat in a country where politics are routinely squalid."
• Editor's note: The reporter's name has been withheld for security reasons.