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National League for Democracy supporters celebrate outside the NLD headquarters as they watch results come in for the byelections in Yangon, Myanmar (Adam Dean/Adam Dean)
National League for Democracy supporters celebrate outside the NLD headquarters as they watch results come in for the byelections in Yangon, Myanmar (Adam Dean/Adam Dean)


Is Burma having its Mandela moment? Add to ...

Mr. Nay Win Maung understood that Myanmar needed to change. He told me when we met in Rangoon last year that he was dismayed by Ms. Suu Kyi's initial insistence on staying out of the country's new political process. He believed that the generals were trying to find a way to reform, but knew that no one in the international community would support the effort unless the Lady was part of it.

Mr. Nay Win Maung died of a heart attack on Jan. 1, but his thinking deeply impressed Mr. Thein Sein; he had helped to draft some of the new President's first speeches.

Shortly after Mr. Thein Sein was sworn in, the businessmen at Egress asked him if they could try passing a letter to Ms. Suu Kyi – the one that invited her without inviting her – via Hla Maung Shwe, a former NLD member and political prisoner who is now vice-president of Myanmar Egress. The President decided that it was worth a try.

“I'm convinced [Mr. Thein Sein]is a gentleman and a man of principle,” says Tin Maung Thann, the president of Myanmar Egress and vice-president of the country's Fisheries Federation. “The meeting with the Lady was a bold decision. Stopping the Myitsone dam [a Chinese construction project opposed by environmental groups and Ms. Suu Kyi]was a bold decision. So was releasing the political prisoners. They prove he's courageous.”

Even braver might have been new trends introduced in the country's 2012-13 budget, which allocated increased – though still relatively tiny – funding to health and education. Meanwhile, the military's share of the overall budget shrank to 14.9 per cent from 23.6 per cent the year before.

However, it remains a precarious process, heavily reliant on the determination of two people. Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein are both 66. She has been ill, off and on, for much of the past year, and was forced to suspend her campaign in the last days before the by-election (doctors have been vague about what ails her). Mr. Thein Sein suffers from heart disease and reportedly has a pacemaker.

Hope versus the greed gap

The parallels between South Africa in 1990 and Myanmar now are striking: Both countries were international pariahs, the targets of boycotts and sanctions. Like Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk then, Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein are now locked in a symbiotic relationship. They need each other: If one fails to deliver, the other will be badly damaged, having committed so much political capital to a process that didn't work.

As in the first months after Mr. Mandela was freed after 27 years on Robben Island, Ms. Suu Kyi's 2010 release from two decades of intermittent house arrest and her return to politics has created unqualified elation around the country.

Wherever she travels, she is met by ecstatic crowds who believe only she can rescue the country from the catastrophes of military rule. Myanmar sits near the bottom of global lists for income per capita, health care and education, and near the top in categories such as corruption and infant mortality.

When I visited Myanmar a year ago, I was struck by the ineffectiveness of the sanctions. The generals and their cronies had prospered by controlling the smuggling that brought goods in around the sanctions, enough to buy $200,000 sports cars and sprawling villas overlooking golf courses. The people the sanctions were intended to help – the ordinary Burmese who voted for Ms. Suu Kyi – were left in the dust, often literally.

Yet the oligarchs wanted more. They were rich by Myanmar standards, but small players when they went to China, Thailand, India or Singapore. Though the sanctions made them wealthy, they came to understand that they could be even wealthier without sanctions. So when Mr. Thein Sein took his first cautious steps toward political reform, large parts of the regime rushed to support him.

On her side, like Mr. Mandela himself, Ms. Suu Kyi appears to be willing to leave the economic levers in the hands of those who hold them, in exchange for the rest of the country gaining the political freedoms previously denied. In South Africa, that deal entrenched an economic divide that still haunts the country today.

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