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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 ...

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.

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.

“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.

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