Seven years of detention was bad enough. But could freedom be even worse? If Aung San Suu Kyi walks out of the gates of her Rangoon home tomorrow or even (as is rumoured) this evening, she faces the challenge of her political life.
The political landscape has changed drastically – at least in appearances – since she was last on the outside. The last time she was freed, in 2002, her party, the NLD, stood alone against the hated regime, and its moral advantage, as the party which had triumphed in the 1990 election, was beyond dispute.
This time she emerges as the figurehead of a party which was forcibly dissolved by the junta after it failed to register for the election – a party which is formally defunct. The opposition field is now crowded with rivals; the main one is the National Democratic Force, a chip off the NLD block, which won 16 seats in the election and claims to have been cheated out of others. Who does she speak for now? What is her platform?
Yet those problems are more apparent than real. Now that it has become clear how scandalously the junta fixed the election, her decision to stay away from it looks smarter than it did: she is undiminished by it. If a true election were held tomorrow, she would probably lead her party to a victory as stunning as that of 1990. The generals know that: that's why they had to keep her locked away. Once she is out, she becomes once again the only democratic interlocutor they cannot brush aside.
Yet that doesn't mean they will agree to talk to her. In fact it's the last thing they want to do. For 18 of the past 20 years, they have been slowly fashioning a pseudo-democratic framework that would leave her and her colleagues firmly outside in the cold. Their handiwork is now almost complete.
For Suu Kyi nothing would be simpler than getting the regime to persecute her again, by going out at once and talking again to massive, delirious crowds – but bitter experience tells her that that road leads nowhere except back into detention.
Her real political challenge is how to induce them to sit down across a table from her. On the rare occasions when she has had the chance to speak during the last seven years, she has shown a growing awareness of the need to handle them more carefully than in the past: no longer threatening them with the people's justice, for example, but agreeing to examine the problems caused by sanctions. There is no guarantee that softly-softly will work better than going on the road. But at least it's something new.
In the meantime she needs to do something about her party, which is in a dire state, reduced to a rump by the junta's persecution. Suu Kyi may be a splendid figurehead, but she needs a seaworthy vessel to which she can be attached. And she is the only person with the authority to make that happen.