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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 ...

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.”

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