If Aung San Suu Kyi is elected to Burma’s parliament on Sunday, the world will inevitably ask: Has Asia’s Nelson Mandela finally met her F.W. de Klerk? Or, if you prefer a European comparison, has Asia’s Václav Havel met her Mikhail Gorbachev? Cue Episode 3 in the “from prisoner to president” saga? I do believe that day will come, but let’s have no illusions: There are still major obstacles ahead.
Whatever happens, Ms. Suu Kyi has long since earned the Havel and Mandela comparisons. Like Mr. Mandela, she has endured decades of imprisonment, emerging with an extraordinary lack of rancour. Like Mr. Havel, she has not only been her country’s leading dissident but also analyzed its political and social condition, in a universal frame. The free-speech manifesto she contributed to the 40th anniversary issue of the magazine Index on Censorship is a classic text of dissident political writing – with a new dimension, since she speaks always as a devout Buddhist.
Intellectually and morally, there’s no comparison between her and Burma’s (a.k.a. Myanmar’s) military leader in a suit, President Thein Sein. Politically, however, the opening he’s led is remarkable. Not just Ms. Suu Kyi but hundreds of other political prisoners have been released, including some from the 88 Generation student movement and monks active in the Saffron Revolution of 2007. The military junta has retreated behind a cloak of civilian politics. Freedom of expression and assembly has exploded, although the legal basis for it remains insecure. Activists have been catapulted from the darkness of a prison cell to the blinding flash of paparazzi bulbs.
Remarkably, Thein Sein has risked the wrath of China, Burma’s would-be big brother, by suspending construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam. (The energy would have gone mainly to China, the environmental cost to Burma.) He has sought ceasefires with insurgent minority groups. And Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has been allowed to register as a party – in Sunday’s by-elections, it has put up candidates for 47 out of 48 available seats in the parliament’s lower house.
If you’d told anyone this a few years ago, when the non-violent monk-led protests of 2007 had just been crushed, they wouldn’t have believed you. Every velvet revolution, every negotiated transition, requires figures in both regime and opposition ready to take the risk of engagement. At last, Burma seems to have its two to tango.
Now for the warning notes. Both leaders are taking a big risk. The regime’s chief astrologer – Burmese rulers have long favoured astrologers over economists – has reportedly predicted that Thein Sein will fall ill this summer. That illness may be political if the grossly self-enriched military feels its vital interests are threatened. Just a few days ago, the head of the army warned that the military’s special position must be respected.
For Ms. Suu Kyi, the risks are also great. She recently had to suspend her campaign, apparently worn out by the heat, crowds and exertion. If some on the regime side add electoral fraud to media manipulation, what will she say? Even if the NLD sweeps the 47 seats, it’ll still only have about 10 per cent of a lower house dominated by a combination of the military-created Union Solidarity and Development Party and 110 seats (one in four!) reserved for military appointees. The next general election is not until 2015.
Popular hopes of Ms. Suu Kyi’s miracle-working powers are exceeded only by the scale of the country’s economic and social problems. Central to those problems are the military’s economic privileges. “I don’t want to ask what you need before the election,” she told voters at an orphanage, “but I will afterward; I promise to come back soon.” But what if she can’t? What if she knows the people’s needs but can’t supply them? Sympathetic observers say she risks exchanging one kind of powerlessness for another.
Then there’s the complex relationship with the ethnic minorities that make up a third of the country’s population. And there’s China, which is hardly going to promote the emergence of a Western-oriented democracy on its doorstep.
But there are grounds for optimism. The NLD may not have the kind of organization the ANC had in South Africa but, as Mr. Havel showed in Czechoslovakia, mass organizations can emerge with remarkable speed in velvet revolutionary times. There’s the social and moral force of the country’s Buddhist monks. The regime’s clearly keen to get European and American sanctions lifted, so there’s some leverage there. Then there’s India, which might at long last choose to encourage next door what it practices at home: democracy. And there’s The Lady herself, a treasure without price.
Astrologers, after all, do make mistakes. Even political scientists have been known to err. On what we know today, it still looks as if Ms. Suu Kyi’s road from prison to presidency has some harsh gradients ahead, and 2015 may be a more realistic target date than 2013. And that end will itself, as Mr. Havel and Mr. Mandela discovered, only be a beginning.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.