Burma: a victory at last... now for the hard part

After her stunning success, Aung San Suu Kyi can get down to the job of helping run Burma. And her first aim must be the daunting but necessary task of changing the constitution

Now begins the hard part. Exactly 24 years after returning to Burma to take care of her sick mother and being swept up in the democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi can finally stop being an "icon", a "symbol", and a "figurehead" and get down to the hard graft of trying to turn her country around. And heaven knows, there is plenty to be done.

It was the desire to take up the work of nation-building where her father Aung San left off when he was assassinated that induced Ms Suu Kyi to become involved in Burmese democratic politics. But for more than 15 years that impulse left her in detention and shut off from everything and everyone. Now at last she is in a position to make a contribution, but the nature, scale and direction of that contribution remain to be defined.

The closest Ms Suu Kyi has come to practical politics to date was running her family with an iron hand: she was notoriously tough on cheats at the children's birthday parties she hosted for her two sons, to the shock and dismay of their friends. In her mid-20s she had a ringside seat on international relations as a junior member of the UN's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions in New York –"in real life no less dreadful than it sounds" as her compatriot Thant Myint-U said. She has also had the long and often turbulent experience of holding together the National League for Democracy (NLD), despite every effort by the authorities to smash it.

But now at last, after all the false starts and brutal reversals, she is going through the looking glass, entering the world of power. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, who visited her in December, spoke recently of the crucial difference between being the leader of a popular opposition movement and being in office. In their private meetings she doubtless spelled out the implications of the change in her own experience, when suddenly popular hope turns into a weight of expectation.

If she is wise, Ms Suu Kyi will take a couple more weeks to convalesce after the rigours of campaigning. Although there is said to be nothing seriously wrong with her, she ran herself ragged. But however fit and well she is, nothing will prepare her for what lies ahead.

In name at least, she and her NLD colleagues will be no more than opposition backbenchers in the Naypyidaw parliament. Even though they appear to have won 44 of the seats the party contested, including the four seats on offer in Naypyidaw itself, the regime's stronghold, the party will still hold less than 10 per cent of total seats in the national parliament, which is dominated by the Union Socialist and Development Party, the army's proxy.

Yet perhaps the least likely scenario for the coming period is that she will become no more than a diligent back-bencher, holding surgeries for her impoverished constituents while hectoring the government from the sidelines.

Two other possibilities are more persuasive. One is that she will, despite being in the opposition, be offered a government role. Education and health have been mentioned, being two of the areas where Burma has performed most deplorably for decades and two policy areas very close to her heart.

But neither job brings with it a place at the top table, the Defence Council, successor to the State Peace and Development Council, which ran the country until last year. If she were to be offered foreign minister or even prime minister, as has been suggested, she would have the levers of power in her hands.

If she took any such job, however, she would inevitably find herself identified with a regime which came to power through a grotesquely rigged election, largely composed of elderly former generals who only removed their uniforms to qualify for government posts.

Many of them are corrupt, many have blood on their hands, and many would be delighted to find ways of leading a woman long regarded as the regime's arch-enemy up the garden path. Whatever the advantages in terms of power, Ms Suu Kyi could find that there was a fatal price to be paid both in terms of popular support and international credibility.

But there is a third possibility that is more attractive and that would not carry those risks. Burma's next general election will be in 2015. On Sunday's showing, and if the election were to be run fairly, the NLD would stand a good chance of repeating the landslide win they gained in 1990, when the humiliated regime, refused to recognise the result.

With a big win in 2015, Ms Suu Kyi and her party would finally have the opportunity to begin work on remaking the country. But they would still be up against the 25 per cent of parliamentary seats held by the military by right, without election; and they would still be in thrall to the Defence Council, which retains the power to dissolve parliament, suspend the constitution and place the country under martial law.

To avoid the risk the army's top ranks sabotaging the tender democracy and plunging the nation once again into the trauma of military rule, the NLD needs first and foremost to amend the Constitution which has been in place since a highly suspect referendum in 2008.

For a party with only a few dozen parliamentary seats, this looks like an outsize challenge: the support of all elected MPs plus some of the non-elected soldiers will be required to make it happen. But Ms Suu Kyi has a crucial ally in President Thein Sein, the clean, reform-minded former soldier who is single-handedly responsible for all the positive changes that have occurred in Burma over the past eight months.

She has made no secret of her desire to see the constitution amended, and if she is careful not to intimidate or enrage the old soldiers by whom she will find herself surrounded in Naypyidaw, this particular miracle, too, is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Then Burma would really be on its way.

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