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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An alternative may be for the Lady, as she is affectionately known in Burma, to focus her energy on social-welfare issues instead of the cut and thrust of politics. That could disappoint many of her followers; the NLD, banned or not, seems determined to remain a political force. "We consider ourselves a legitimate political party, even if the government considers us null and void," says Win Tin. Suu Kyi has already begun pushing for the NLD to be reinstated as a legal entity.

The trouble is, politics has a way of disappointing Burma. During the recent campaign season, political candidates and NLD boycotters alike talked and talked, but they rarely touched on actual policies to fix Burma's woes. Instead, some members of Burma's intellectual elite focused on personal political feuds, some of which date back generations. Yet in Burma today, 10% of children don't live to be 5, and half never finish school. Health care and education spending are among the lowest in the world. "Since the early 20th century in Burma, one could argue that the problem hasn't been too little politics, but too much," says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian. "There has been an enormous focus on high-level politics and far too little on the specifics of government, like health care or education or the economy itself."

The Disunited Nation
It would not be easy to improve the life chances of Burma's people if their leaders were all competent saints. But Burma faces another profound complication as it tries to move forward: the fact that it is not a truly unified nation at all. Ethnic minorities — the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, the Mon, the Rakhine and the Chin, among many others — make up more than 40% of the population. Ever since the British quit their colony in 1948, the country has been riven by ethnic conflict in its vast borderlands. The generals who now rule Burma forced a sort of unity on the country, but at a terrible cost to its ethnic peoples. Burmese soldiers regularly use rape as a weapon against ethnic women, and forced labor is common. An estimated 2 million people are internally displaced, largely because of ethnic fighting and forced relocations. Although most of Burma's lucrative natural resources are located in ethnic-minority areas, the people living there get little profit from this bounty. Ethnically, the junta is entirely Bamar (also known as Burman), and minorities are barred from most civil service jobs as well as the upper echelons of the military.

Back in 1947, in a historic agreement signed in the town of Panglong, Suu Kyi's father Aung San promised ethnic minorities a high level of autonomy in the future Union of Burma. But he was killed months later by a political rival, and subsequent governments failed to live up to Aung San's pledge. Since her latest release, Suu Kyi has called for a "second Panglong," a plea that had special resonance as fighting between ethnic Karen rebels and the Burmese military flared this month on the Thailand-Burma border. But once more, the limits of Suu Kyi's power come in to play: What leverage does she have to force the junta into meeting the demands of an array of disaffected rebel armies? Even though Suu Kyi may be one of the few Bamar that ethnic groups trust, they are under no illusions about their place in a unified Burma. "Let's say the Lady forms a government," says a senior commander of the Kachin ethnic group. "Will she love us as she loves [the Bamar] people? We will always be second-class citizens."

For now, after catching up on business in Rangoon, Suu Kyi says she wants to roam the country to hear the voices of all who live in it, whatever their ethnicity. Such travels will give her time to acquaint herself with a changed nation. (Suu Kyi is still getting the hang of smart phones, having first used one the day of her release.) A listening tour will also be a test of strength, for both Suu Kyi and the generals. The crowds that will undoubtedly flock to her will show just how beloved she is — and how much of an influence she may still be. Every step she takes will be scrutinized by a regime that may have underestimated her enduring popularity but that won't hesitate to jail her again if it feels she challenges its authority. In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev set his face against the use of violence to preserve Soviet power in Eastern Europe. There is no sign of latter-day Gorbachevs in Burma.

That means there is a looming potential for real danger. Besides the Depayin attack, Suu Kyi and her supporters have twice before been targeted by thugs associated with the military. Assassination claimed Suu Kyi's father; its specter stalks her too. Two decades ago, in her famous "Freedom from Fear" speech, Suu Kyi said, "It is not power that corrupts but fear ... Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions." For more than 20 years, Suu Kyi has embodied this purest form of bravery. Now the challenge will be to turn it into a force for real change.

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