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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)

Myanmar

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

Burmese memories in the wings

The return to the President's office of the portrait of Gen. Aung San – the father who was assassinated by his rivals when Ms. Suu Kyi was two years old – could scarcely have been more symbolic.

Once ubiquitous (his face was on the Burmese currency, the kyat, until his daughter emerged as a leader of the 1988 student uprising), his image was all but forbidden under Gen. Than Shwe. The family house in central Rangoon – once a popular museum – was shut for all but one day a year and allowed to fall into disrepair, as security agents prevented even foreign tourists from visiting.

Now, Gen. Aung San's image is on display all over the country, often beside his daughter's, on T-shirts, buttons and posters for sale not only at the NLD office but at Rangoon's main market. The Gen. Aung San museum is open three days a week, with Ms. Suu Kyi's crib, and three black-and-white photographs of the Lady as a chubby-faced toddler among the exhibits.

In the eyes of many, the return of Gen. Aung San also represents a desire to return to pre-junta Myanmar – the country that fought for its independence from Britain and then Japan; the country that was once the world's largest rice producer; the country called Burma.

“It means it's not erased from our history, as some people wish it to be,” Ms. Suu Kyi told me when I asked what it meant to see her father's portrait on the streets of Rangoon again.

Yet it's worth remembering that Gen. Aung San was a military leader, not a civilian one. It's unclear now what his daughter can accomplish as an ordinary MP, even as the most famous and influential opposition parliamentarian on the planet.

Only Mr. Thein Sein and a clutch of insiders know whether the end goal is simply an escape from sanctioned-pariah status, or a way to find a graceful exit for the generals so that the Lady and her party can finally have the victory they were denied in 1990. Even fewer know for sure whether the President has the power to follow through.

“I am confident that he is genuinely committed to democratic reform, but I remain concerned how much genuine support there is for him in the military,” Ms. Suu Kyi said when pressed. However, she has also referred to the changes that have taken places as “irreversible.”

In many ways, the by-elections were a test run, a preview of 2015 when Ms. Suu Kyi – by then almost 70 – and the NLD may finally have a chance to undo the injustice of 1990. The results have made clear once again the overwhelming popularity of the Lady, and the equally deep unpopularity of the government.

“From the authorities' [viewpoint] they will be afraid now, just imagining what will happen in the 2015 election,” says Ko Ko Kyi, one of the 1988 student leaders released from prison in January as part of the agreement between Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein. “We need to relax them, to convince them we are willing to co-operate with them.”

Heightening the generals' fears, the NLD won all four seats in Naypyidaw, the capital they built in the middle of nowhere in an effort to put some physical distance between the levers of power and the pro-NLD crowds of Rangoon. The ruling USDP lost even the seat that Mr. Thein Sein won in 2010.

The party's sprawling offices in Naypyidaw are modelled on the centres of power in ancient Rome, with towering stone ceilings supported by twisting pillars. Though the columns were painted in the USDP's colours of military green when the building opened in 2006, the white stone beneath is already visible, the thin paint seemingly having evaporated in the blistering sun.

Asked whether the military and the USDP could accept an NLD government, perhaps one led by Ms. Suu Kyi, if the by-election results were repeated nationally in 2015, Mr. Htay Oo – a top-five figure in the old junta – initially dances around the question.

His party needs to do a better job explaining itself to voters in order to win the next election, he says: Myanmar needs to understand that it was Ms. Suu Kyi who brought the sanctions upon the country, not the USDP.

But then, finally, he says something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when men like him were still in uniform: “It will be up to the will of the people.”

Globe and Mail correspondent Mark MacKinnon is based in Beijing and has been nominated for two National Newspaper Awards this year.

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Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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