Leading article: Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom is just the start of a long road

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The scenes of rejoicing in Rangoon following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi inevitably cast many people's minds back to the day when another famous pro-democracy leader, Nelson Mandela, was freed just over 20 years ago.

Points of useful comparison, unfortunately, are few, which is why world leaders need to be careful before hailing this welcome event as a sign that Burma's power-hungry junta has experienced a change of heart.

When South Africa's white regime clicked open Mandela's prison door in 1990 after 27 years it did so from a position of weakness, Prime Minister De Klerk having concluded that time had run out for apartheid, and the white minority had to learn to sink or swim in a genuine democracy.

The Burmese military appears to suffer no such self-doubt and is not about to hand over power to Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. On the contrary, the generals seem bent on perpetuating their regime ad infinitum by giving it a new, spurious, veneer of democratic legitimacy. Hence the recent stage-managed elections in which various tame parties, including a breakaway faction of Ms Suu Kyi's own party, took part.

The fact that most outside observers condemned the polls as a farce won't have worried the generals. That the elections split Ms Suu Kyi's democracy movement in two was triumph enough.

The dilemma facing Ms Suu Kyi is that almost any move she makes now can be used against her – either to show that she is a threat to stability, or an irrelevance. The generals will not call another election simply to please the NLD, and might pounce on any suggestion that they dispute the election result as an excuse to lock up its leader again.

As she ponders difficult choices, there is, tragically, not much that her many foreign friends, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, can do. Comparisons with South Africa in the early 1990s are again misleading. The reason why the Nationalists threw in the towel in South Africa was not just because the world disapproved of apartheid or because of the sports boycott. It was because its economy was beginning to buckle under an effective sanctions regime, which most of South Africa's neighbours upheld at some cost to their own prosperity.

Burma's rulers have no such difficulties with their neighbours. The two most important regional powers, China and India, compete for Burma's favour. India may be the world's largest democracy, but is not interested in exporting its democratic values if Burma is anything to go by. Delhi was once an important supporter of Ms Suu Kyi in the early 1990s. But keenness to exploit Burma's oil and gas resources has long since trumped concerns about Burmese civil rights. Significantly, after the military quashed pro-democracy protests in Burma by Buddhist monks in 2007, India murmured platitudes. Thailand, Burma's eastern neighbour, is another enthusiastic trading partner.

The sad fact is that none of Burma's neighbours has a problem with the military regime. If anything, they resent Western lectures on the subject. Ms Suu Kyi, therefore, is in the ironic position of being feted round the world while being virtually friendless where it counts most – in regional capitals.

As her domestic enemies do their best to provoke her, or portray her as a relic of the past, she must hold fast to her principles while showing readiness to adapt to the times. Her suggestion yesterday that she was prepared to talk to the generals was astute – a sign that she recognises the difficult political position she is in. Whether she can continue to balance hard-headed pragmatism with her supporters' idealism remains to be seen. It will be a hard act. We wish her well.

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