These are strange, exciting days in Burma – until months ago a military dictatorship with an iron fist. First there was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, "Auntie Suu" to most Burmese and a symbol of her country's thwarted democratic hopes. Now she is a MP in parliament for a seat south-west of Rangoon following the first general election in decades in which the result wasn't wholly decided in advance.
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. "It", meaning democratic change, however incremental, wasn't supposed to happen in Burma at all. Conventional wisdom was that the military junta, which has been in power since the 1960s, was too homogeneous and too strong, besides being in receipt of important backing from China and, to a lesser extent, India. The opposition under Ms Suu Kyi was too weak, too fractured and was held hostage by its ownpacific ideology.
Now we rub our eyes in disbelief as an unfamiliar script unfolds, one in which the dictators and those to whom they have dictated feel their way into a new arrangement whose ultimate shape is unclear. This is because while Burma's military has not indicated any readiness to cede an iota of power to anyone, at the same time it has allowed Ms Suu Kyi, the same woman it incarcerated for years as a danger to the state (meaning to itself) to compete in an election and win.
This was not what most of us would call a free or fair election. In some places, Ms Suu Kyi was not allowed to hold any rallies and in others she was confined to obscure parking lots and fields. Even if her National League for Democracy wins every seat that it contested – the remaining results are not yet out – the NLD will not take over the government or necessarily enter a form of joint transitional administration. Most of the seats in parliament's lower house have been earmarked for the junta's front, the Union, Solidarity and Development Party, and for other nominees. In an optimum situation the NLD can take no more than 44 seats out of 440, not much more than 10 per cent. Whatever happens in the polling stations the generals will still call all the shots.
Not surprisingly, for that reason, some of Ms Suu Kyi's supporters regarded her decision to take part in the election with misgiving, wondering whether she isn't setting herself up. It is a fair concern. The generals have power aplenty. What they don't have, and still crave, is a slice of the legitimacy that only Ms Suu Kyi can bestow. It would suit them well to carry on running Burma and enriching themselves in the process while at the same clipping Ms Suu Kyi's wings and co-opting her into the political process. They may have calculated that they are better off with her as a MP – free but fairly impotent in a parliament that doesn't control anything – as opposed to being behind bars and strong in less-calculable ways.
Ms Suu Kyi has weighed up those risks and has grasped the olive branch that has been held out to her and we in Britain, a country she knows extremely well, should support her all the way. After so many years spent under house arrest, years in which her dying British husband was cruelly denied a visa to visit her, she has earned the right to say what compromises are worthwhile. Having spurned so many earlier opportunities to regain her freedom, she has demonstrated time and time again that she cannot be bought or fobbed off simply by the promise of liberty.
Clearly she took part in this flawed election because she believes that the generals, or at least some of them, are sincere in wanting to change things in Burma for good in the direction of openness, tolerance and plurality – perhaps even real democracy. We must now hope that she is right.