With Suu Kyi Free at Last, What's Next for Burma?

Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest to a Burma that, while still in the generals' grip, is changing fast. To get things done, she will have to learn how to be more than an icon of democracy

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Photograph by Redux for TIME

Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters shortly after her release

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A month later, the military killed hundreds of demonstrators. Suu Kyi helped found the NLD in the aftermath of the bloodshed, and by 1990 her moral authority was such that her party overwhelmingly won national elections. But the generals, who have ruled Burma since a 1962 coup and call the country Myanmar, ignored the results. The woman who should have been Burma's Prime Minister was locked up, spending a total of 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest. In 1999 she passed up the chance to visit her dying British husband lest the generals not allow her to return home. Suu Kyi's most recent stint of house arrest in Rangoon, Burma's largest city, came after an army-backed mob attacked her supporters in the town of Depayin, killing dozens. Although that sentence was set to expire last year, it was extended after an American Vietnam War veteran who said he was on a mission from God swam unannounced to her lakeside home, contravening the conditions of her confinement.

Suu Kyi has not left Burma for more than 20 years, but the country into which she has been released is very different from the place she last properly saw in 2003. True, it is still one of the poorest countries on earth, with nearly one-third of its citizens living below the poverty line because of the regime's cockamamie economic policies. (In the most egregious example, a military leader once decided to denominate the currency in multiples of 9 because he thought the digit lucky.) But Burma today is no longer a geopolitical backwater. With a population of some 50 million, and wedged between Asia's two emerging giants, China and India, the country is of vital strategic value as foreign nations scramble for its rich resources, including oil, minerals and natural gas. Beginning in the 1990s, in response to the regime's murderous rule, many Western governments imposed economic sanctions on Burma. The financial restrictions were tightened after the bloodshed of 2007. But over the past few years, an influx of investment from Asian countries, particularly China, has poured money into the pockets of the top brass, blunting the effect of the economic sanctions, which Suu Kyi has supported.

The political landscape, too, has shifted. Although Suu Kyi is still revered, as proven by the crowds that have thronged her since her release, the political opposition that once coalesced around her has begun to fracture. In the run-up to the Nov. 7 elections, the NLD, at Suu Kyi's request, chose to boycott a poll that was clearly stacked in the generals' favor — down to a constitutional clause that precludes anyone ever married to a foreigner from holding high public office. But a breakaway faction called the National Democratic Force (NDF) appeared to question Suu Kyi's uncompromising stance and did contend in the elections, along with dozens of other opposition parties, many of which represent Burma's patchwork of ethnic minorities. Because of rampant vote rigging, the opposition won fewer parliamentary seats than it probably should have. The NDF, for instance, captured only 16 of the 163 seats it contested, while the military's USDP claimed more than 80% of the vote. But even with just a small fraction of parliament, a legal democratic opposition now exists that is distinct from Suu Kyi and her NLD. "Of course, we are very much happy to hear about [Suu Kyi's] release," says Khin Maung Swe, a leader of the NDF. "But I don't think she should take a formal political position in the NLD. She should be a sort of statesman, a democratic icon for Myanmar who brings all sides together for national reconciliation."

Even if Suu Kyi assumes no official political role, the expectations placed on her narrow shoulders are immense. It is one thing to be a famous prisoner of conscience; it is quite another to maneuver through a political minefield where the enemy is a clutch of battle-hardened, thuggish generals. To survive, Suu Kyi must balance the political art of compromise with the unswerving commitment to democracy that has made her such an inspiration. All the while, she must not overly antagonize the military regime, which has shown that it can manufacture any trifling reason to lock her up. "She has her democratic ideals, and the Burmese people love her because of this," says former activist Aung Zaw. "But this time, she must realistically accept the rule of the military and figure out a way to coexist, because the military is not ready to go back to the barracks."

So far, Suu Kyi has taken a relatively conciliatory tone. At NLD headquarters, she spoke of possibly reconsidering her support for Western sanctions, which isolate and hurt normal Burmese as well as their leaders. Only Suu Kyi has the moral authority to persuade foreign leaders to lift financial restrictions on Burma, but a resumption of trade would be an economic boon for the generals. She has also been careful not to criticize the top brass personally and called for political dialogue with junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. "Others of us, we have bitterness against military rule," says Win Tin, an NLD elder who was jailed for 19 years. "But she is very kind to them because her father was the founder of the Burmese army. She can also talk to the generals directly and not be branded as a traitor by the Burmese people."

But if the generals don't bother replying to Suu Kyi's offer to talk, what can she do except make speeches into the wind? With the elections done and Asian investment flowing in, the military regime is now at its strongest in years. The generals' confidence may explain why they decided to release Suu Kyi. "Everyone's fear is that she offers national-reconciliation talks with the generals, and they don't respond," says a Western diplomat in Rangoon. "Then she gets frustrated, ups the ante and ends up getting arrested again because she's crossed some invisible line."

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