In 1990 the Burmese junta announced elections and decided to take on the recently returned charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi at the ballot box. To the surprise of most observers the elections were free and fair and not rigged. The result was a resounding victory of the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy. The stunned generals reacted petulantly and nullified the elections results. Ms. Suu Kyi spent 15 of the next 22 years under house arrest. Even when not under arrest she was not free and refused to leave the country for the legitimate fear that a return would be blocked.
Over the next 22 years the already isolated Burmese nation became an international pariah. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize and became the conscience of the suppressed Burmese people. During the last two decades Myanmar’s secessionists wars continued. The junta displayed its brutality in suppressing widespread protests spearheaded by the respected Buddhist monks and its incompetence during Cyclone Nargis. In these years Myanmar became the latest international pariah befriended by a cynical China eager to harvest abundant Burmese resources. Unwilling to see another neighbor become a Chinese satellite, India swallowed its distaste and permitted economic ties with the Burmese junta. For all the bravery of the Burmese monks and the dignity of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar was the land the rest of the world largely gave up on.
And suddenly this year things changed. Possibly fearing life as a Chinese puppet and worried about its long term future, the junta sent out feelers to Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters and transferred power to a nominally civilian government. Even though the 650 seat parliament is dominated by the uniforms it announced elections for 45 seats. As an additional carrot, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to run.
Even with attempts to rig the elections, it appears that the National League for Democracy may have won 44 of the 45 seats. If the result holds up, it is a stinging rebuke to the junta. The question is what happens next. The junta obviously has no legitimacy and for now will have given up control of less than 7% of parliament. Hosni Mubarak held on to power in Egypt for almost three decades by allowing the opposition to nibble at the edges of parliament. But until two years ago Hosni Mubarak never faced such a debacle at the ballot box. For the second time in 22 years the Burmese people have shown their contempt for the junta at the ballot box.
So will the generals fade away quietly into the good night? What assurances will the NLD be willing to give to hasten this transition? Given the thumping the junta has taken in what should have been its pampered strongholds, how much control do they retain on the rank and file? It is a time for statesmanship of the sort that allowed Spain in 1975 and Chile in 1989 to transition to democracy. Will the characters on stage step up?