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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

It was last summer when a letter arrived at Aung San Suu Kyi's crumbling and mould-blackened mansion on the sleepy bank of Inya Lake, the heart of Rangoon. The message wasn't necessarily for her – the name of the addressee was deliberately left off – but it contained a startling proposal: Would whoever received the letter be interested in taking part in an economic conference, a meeting that would also be attended by the new President of Myanmar?

Ms. Suu Kyi understood why her name wasn't mentioned: No one would lose face if she said no, since she had never been formally invited.

"I would consider it," she told the interlocutor who hand-delivered the message. A few days later, he returned bearing a similar letter, its intentions made plainer: Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist, was being invited to a conference at which she was sure to encounter Thein Sein, the general who had shed his uniform to become Myanmar's first nominally civilian President.

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Their meeting on Aug. 19 would dramatically alter the course of the country better known as Burma. It set the stage for this week's celebrated by-elections, which saw Ms. Suu Kyi's long-banned National League for Democracy (NLD) claim victories in 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats that were up for grabs.

It is a result that will soon make the democracy icon the official opposition leader in a parliament still controlled by military and ex-military men. The balance of power hasn't tilted yet, but by joining hands to bring the NLD into the system, Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein put Myanmar on a course for something like real democracy, perhaps as early as the next general election in 2015.

The international community, anxious to welcome a changing Myanmar back into the fold, is preparing to lift some of the many economic sanctions imposed against the regime. Some of the measures have been in place since 1988, when Ms. Suu Kyi first returned to her native country and was swept into leading street protests against the junta.

But the letter alone wasn't what persuaded Ms. Suu Kyi to trust a man who was an integral part of the regime she had fought for so long. It probably helped to know that a portrait of her father – General Aung San, the country's beloved independence hero – had been restored to the President's office after being banished for the past two decades in a telling display of just how much the former junta loathed Ms. Suu Kyi.

A personal connection between the President and "the Lady" (as she is colloquially known here) was built further when Mr. Thein Sein invited Ms. Suu Kyi to a private dinner at his home after the economic conference, a meal during which his wife and two daughters bubbled over with admiration for the heroine in their midst.

But most important, Mr. Thein Sein made a series of major promises to Ms. Suu Kyi that day – and then kept them.

He told her that he would release thousands of political prisoners, and would allow the NLD to register as a legal party. He also told her that he would alter the country's electoral laws to allow a convicted criminal (as Ms. Suu Kyi is considered) to stand for office. He quickly did all three.

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"The reason why we have been able to take part in these elections is because he spearheaded electoral reforms," Ms. Suu Kyi said last week at a press conference on the lawn of that same ramshackle family villa, in response to a question from The Globe and Mail about why she trusted Mr. Thein Sein. When she spoke of what the President has done, she sounded genuinely grateful: "If it had not been for him, we would not have been able to re-register our party."

And thus Myanmar, a country that already had a democracy icon comparable to Nelson Mandela, has discovered that it has its own F.W. de Klerk in the president's office. Mr. Mandela is remembered as the hero who led South Africa to multiracial democracy. But it was Mr. de Klerk who dismantled apartheid.

Still, as any South African will tell you, getting to cast a ballot for the person or party of your choice hardly fixes everything that ails a country.

A triumph born out of farce

No one expected any of this a year ago, when Mr. Thein Sein was sworn in after a parliamentary election that was denounced as a sham by both Ms. Suu Kyi and her allies in the international community.

The November, 2010, vote – the first since a landslide 1990 election win by the NLD that the military never honoured – was stage-managed to the point of farce. With Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest, the NLD boycotted the vote and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a motley collection of recently decommissioned soldiers and their allies, won an improbable 77 per cent of the seats.

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Mr. Thein Sein was the party's nominal leader in the campaign, but everyone was sure that the real power still rested with the old junta boss, Senior General Than Shwe.

Mr. Thein Sein's subsequent appointment as President elicited no excitement inside or outside Myanmar. He had been the junta's prime minister, and was seen as a weak figure with no support, whether in the general population or the military.

Many believe that he was chosen precisely because of that weakness; he was supposedly a figure Gen. Than Shwe could easily manipulate as he continued to control the country from the shadows. Mr. Thein Sein would be the regime's slightly more pleasant face, but few believed anything substantive had changed in Naypyidaw, the junta's newly built and bizarrely empty capital city.

But then the unexpected happened: Gen. Than Shwe really did retire, or at least disappeared from the public eye. Some say he fell ill. And Mr. Thein Sein, whose reputation in the country was as a relatively moderate and uncorrupt general in a regime dominated by hardliners and kleptocrats, was suddenly in control.

Those who know Mr. Thein Sein say he grew disillusioned with the junta system after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which saw his native Irrawaddy Delta obliterated and 130,000 people killed.

Though theoretically in charge of the relief operation, Mr. Thein Sein was hamstrung by his own bureaucracy and Gen. Than Shwe's refusal to allow in outside help. It's likely that tens of thousands of cyclone victims died unnecessarily because of the government's inept response.

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After Nargis, a clique of would-be reformers (some of whom are now in Mr. Thein Sein's cabinet) began to develop inside the regime. Three years later, they found themselves in charge of the country.

"People mistakenly refer to the old system as the 'junta,' when in fact it was a dictatorship of one man, Senior General Than Shwe. All of the people under him were loyal to him, but they may have had different opinions about how the country should be run," says Thant Myint-U, a historian and long-time United Nations diplomat (his grandfather was secretary-general) who now shuttles in and out of Myanmar, occasionally advising Mr. Thein Sein on economic policy.

Ms. Suu Kyi understood that Gen. Than Shwe's exit created a new dynamic, and moved quickly to see if the new President was serious about his promises of reform. "You could say that the deal that was offered to her is not that different from what she was offered as far back as 1995," Mr. Thant Myint-U says. "The difference is, she was willing to trust Thein Sein."

And Mr. Thein Sein? "He wants to be seen as the man who presided over Myanmar's transition to democracy."

The backroom connection

The push to get Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein in a room together came from a group of regime-connected businessmen who six years ago formed an organization known as Myanmar Egress (egress: a way out). Headed by Nay Win Maung, the son of a military officer who owned two pro-regime newspapers, Egress became one of the more controversial organizations in the country, seen by some as a rare example of civil society taking root, while others accused it of being little more than a public-relations firm for the junta.

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Precisely because of those regime connections, however, they became a go-to point for foreign journalists and diplomats trying to understand the changes taking place in the country, and eventually for Ms. Suu Kyi and the democracy movement. Visiting the office of Myanmar Egress, on the second floor of a drab, concrete office block in downtown Rangoon, was a way to speak to the generals without speaking to the generals.

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.

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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.

Another part of the pact that ended apartheid saw Mr. Mandela's African National Congress establish a Truth and Reconcil- iation Commission that saw amnesties granted to those who confessed their crimes. Charges were laid in only a few apartheid-era atrocities. In Myanmar, it's not hard to foresee a similar future.

The country is rich in natural resources, from timber and gems to large deposits of natural gas. With Ms. Suu Kyi's return to politics, the United States has already announced that it will start lifting some sanctions and appoint a full ambassador to Myanmar for the first time since 1990. The European Union is expected to take similar steps later this month.

Canada, which imposed the strictest sanctions of any country, has thus far offered only cautious praise of how the by-elections were conducted. But a review of sanctions policy seems likely soon.

Those who led the old regime are delighted that debate is finally starting to happen. Htay Oo, a retired major-general who now heads the military-created USDP, makes a direct connection between the pace of reforms and the lifting of sanctions.

"We have made the decision to improve our country, whether there are sanctions or not. But we can accomplish more without the sanctions," he says in a rare sit-down with a foreign journalist at the USDP's vast head office in Naypyidaw. "If there is no economic and political stability in the system, there cannot be achievements."

Some observers have criticized the sanctions in the past, as tactics that hurt the people they sought to protect. But even they say caution needs to be used in dismantling them, or else it will only entrench the oligarchy the sanctions helped to create.

"The aim is to both have sanctions lifted and government policies changed. If you do one without the other, you could have all sorts of unintended consequences," says Mr. Thant Myint-U, the historian helping to advise Mr. Thein Sein. "I'm firmly convinced that the opening-up will continue, that the economy will grow. I'm much less optimistic that the ordinary people, the poorest people, will benefit."

Time to transcend rhetoric

Last week, the ballroom of the Chinese-owned Traders Hotel, the only true business hotel in Rangoon, saw representatives from dozens of international energy companies gather to hear a pitch from the Ministry of Energy. "I assure you that there has never been a better time to come to Myanmar," Energy Minister Than Htay told them. The foreign business people seemed to need no convincing, scribbling notes about the country's energy needs and gas-export potential.

Half a city away from the Traders Hotel is the township of Mingalar Taung Nyunt, a place where impoverished villagers live in wood and tin shacks that sit beside a sprawling dump and an abandoned railway yard. It's here that the hope for change is most strongly felt, where the belief in Ms. Suu Kyi – whom many refer to as "Mother Suu" – borders on religious.

It's also these lives that she will have the hardest time changing. "There are two very different classes of people in Burma. There are the people who are very rich and there are people who are very, very poor," veteran AIDS activist Phyu Phyu Thin says, shouting to make herself heard over the din of an NLD rally.

Ms. Phyu Phyu Thin was personally recruited into politics by Ms. Suu Kyi, and will join her in Parliament after winning the by-election in Mingalar Taung Nyunt.

"We need to do something to close that gap between rich and poor," Ms. Phyu Phyu Thin tells me. But what, I ask her, can she and Ms. Suu Kyi do once they're in Parliament? Her answer sounds more like a slogan than a strategy: "We can bring the voices of the people."

What about bringing the generals to justice for (among other things) using military force to crush peaceful democracy protests in 1988 and the monk-led uprising in 2007?

In her press conference, Ms. Suu Kyi herself pointed to South Africa as a model, quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, her fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "What we believe in is not retributive justice, but restorative justice."

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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