Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters from her vehicle… (Khin Maung Win / AP Photo )
If Aung San Suu Kyi is elected to Burma's parliament on Sunday, the world will inevitably ask: Has Asia's Nelson Mandela finally met her President F.W. de Klerk? Or, if you prefer a European comparison, has Asia's Vaclav Havel met her Mikhail Gorbachev? Cue episode three in the world's prisoner-to-president sagas?
I do believe that day will come, but let us have no illusions: There are still major obstacles ahead. Wisdom and strength, both inside and outside Burma, will be needed to surmount them.
Whatever happens, Suu Kyi has long since earned the Havel and Mandela comparisons. Like Mandela, she has endured decades of imprisonment, emerging with an extraordinary lack of rancor. Like Havel, she has not only been her country's leading dissident but also analyzed its political and social condition in a universal frame. Listen to the first of the two BBC Reith lectures she delivered last year. Read her free-speech manifesto in the magazine Index on Censorship. These are classics of modern dissident political writing, with a new dimension because she speaks always as a devout Buddhist.
Intellectually and morally, there is no comparison between her and Burma's (a.k.a. Myanmar's) military leader in a civilian suit, President Thein Sein.
Politically, however, the opening he has created is remarkable. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, including some from the important 88 Generation student movement and monks who were active in the so-called saffron revolution of 2007. The military junta has retreated behind a cloak of civilian politics. Freedom of expression and assembly has exploded, though the legal basis for it is still insecure. Activists have been catapulted from the darkness of a prison cell to the blinding flash of paparazzi bulbs.
Remarkably, Thein Sein has risked the wrath of China, Burma's would-be big brother, by suspending construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam. (The energy would have gone mainly to China, the environmental cost to Burma.) He has sought cease-fires with insurgent minority groups, though some armed conflict continues. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has been allowed to register as a party. It has put up candidates in Sunday's elections for 47 of the 48 available seats in the lower house of parliament. Large crowds hail one of those candidates as a savior wherever she goes.
If you had suggested any of this four years ago, as the saffron revolution was brutally crushed, no one would have believed you. Every velvet revolution, every negotiated transition, requires figures in both the regime and the opposition who are ready to take the risk of engagement. At last, Burma seems to have its two to tango.
Now for the warning notes. Both leaders are indeed taking a big risk. The regime's chief astrologer —Burmese rulers favor astrologers over economists — has reportedly predicted that Thein Sein will fall ill this summer.
That illness may be political, if the grossly self-enriched military feels its vital interests are threatened. Just a few days ago, the head of the army warned that the military's special position, enshrined in the 2008 constitution, must be respected.
For Suu Kyi , the risks are also great. The NLD leader recently had to suspend her campaign, apparently worn out by the heat, crowds and exertion. If some on the regime side add electoral fraud to media manipulation, what will she say? Even if the NLD wins all the seats it is contesting, it will have just over 10% of a lower house dominated by the military-created Union Solidarity and Development Party, with 110 seats (one in four) reserved for military appointees. The next general election is not till 2015.
Popular hopes of her miracle-working powers are exceeded only by the scale of the country's problems. Central to those problems, as in Egypt, are the economic privileges of the military. "I don't want to ask what you need before the election," she told voters at an orphanage, "but I will afterward; I promise to come back soon." But what if she can't, being stuck in parliamentary committees in the remote, artificial government city of Naypyidaw? What if she knows the people's needs but cannot supply them?
Sympathetic observers say she risks exchanging one kind of powerlessness for another.
Then there is the complex relationship with the ethnic minorities that make up about one-third of the country's population. And there is China, which is hardly going to welcome the emergence of a shining, Western-oriented democracy on its doorstep.