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

  • Photograph by Redux for TIME

    Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters shortly after her release

    In a tragic place scented by tropical blooms, it was the simplest of gestures. On Nov. 13, as Aung San Suu Kyi peered out of the crumbling villa complex where she has been confined for much of the past two decades, one of the thousands of well-wishers gathered to mark her moment of freedom handed her a nosegay of flowers. Smiling, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate received the fragrant benediction and tucked the blossoms in her hair. "We haven't seen each other for so long. I have so much to tell you," Suu Kyi said to her supporters, with an understatement that belied the seven years of house arrest she had endured in her most recent stint at the hands of Burma's military regime. "We have a lot of things to do."

    Just a day later, Suu Kyi dived right back into the political fray. In a speech at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), her now banned political party, Suu Kyi appealed to the world and her people to keep fighting for political reform. A week earlier, Burma had held its first national elections in two decades, an exercise that the NLD boycotted and that has been discredited by the suspiciously high margin of victory for the ruling junta's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). "My message is not for the Western nations in particular, and my message is not for those parties that took part in the election," she said on Nov. 14, as thousands of fans withstood the beating noon sun to hear her. "It is for all those that are interested in seeing democracy in Burma. For all of us, there are times when we need help, and this is a time for Burma when we need help."

    In a world that struggles to find heroes, Suu Kyi stands as one of the few enduring symbols of moral courage. Part of that endurance is courtesy of one of the age's most repressive regimes, which has tried for 21 years to silence its most compelling — and graceful — opponent. For it matters, one must admit, that Suu Kyi is beautiful, a 65-year-old sylph who wears jasmine in her hair. But beyond her delicate features, it is Suu Kyi's fortitude — a stalk of bamboo swaying in the winds yet never snapping — that has inspired millions and until Nov. 13 made her the world's most famous political prisoner. (There are still, however, more than 2,100 other Burmese languishing in jail for speaking out against the government.) Upon her release, U.S. President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi "a hero of mine," adding, "whether Aung San Suu Kyi is living in the prison of her house or the prison of her country does not change the fact that she, and the political opposition she represents, has been systematically silenced, incarcerated and deprived of any opportunity to engage in political processes that could change Burma."

    Obama was right to stress that Suu Kyi's release has not altered the fundamentals of power in her homeland. Unlike the vaunted company she keeps in the world's imagination — Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Corazon Aquino — Suu Kyi has not been able to free Burma from the iron grip of dictatorship. During the years she was the imprisoned face of the Burmese democracy movement, the generals' power only increased. Now that she walks free, the world rejoices. But the prospects for political change in Burma are still bleak. "I'm afraid there will be no people power in Burma, only people's funerals," says Burmese author Kyaw Win, referring to previous democracy movements, one in 1988 and another just three years ago in 2007 — both of which ended with protesters being gunned down.

    Still, if anyone is brave enough to give a voice to some of the most oppressed people on earth, it is the woman who jokes that she is known by her foreign fans as "the lady with the unpronounceable name." (For the record, it's pronounced Awn Sahn Sue Chee.) The question now is whether she can translate the lofty principles she has so eloquently articulated into reality. In any country, making the transition from an icon of democracy to a player of hard-boiled politics is difficult enough; consider, for example, the mixed legacy of Poland's Lech Walesa, a lion of resistance to communist rule but a disappointing President. Figureheads have to come down to earth, negotiating not just with those they have stood against but often with those who fought while their leaders were away. And Suu Kyi must complete this evolution in a place where the generals still rule, where she has twice been released and twice been rearrested for her unyielding political stand. "The people have pinned so many hopes on her," says Aung Zaw, a Burmese former student activist who now runs an exile media organization from neighboring Thailand. "But it's not like we will have democracy overnight. These are brutal military guys, and it's not fair to depend just on her."

    House Arrest
    The daughter of independence hero General Aung San, who was assassinated when she was just 2 years old, Suu Kyi lived much of her early life abroad. But she returned to Burma in 1988 to care for her sick mother, and in late August that year, she ended up on a stage in front of half a million pro-democracy protesters with whom she shared her Buddhist philosophy of nonviolence.

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