How confident should she be?

Richard Lloyd Parry

  • The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham
    Rider, 446 pp, £20.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84604 248 5

With every week it becomes more and more difficult to hold on to a feeling which has become so instinctive as to be almost consoling: a contemptuous suspicion of the Burmese government, and a refusal to believe anything it claims, proposes or promises. A year ago, Burma’s new president, a former general called Thein Sein, could not have lured any respectable politician to his Ming the Merciless-style parliamentary complex in Naypyidaw, Burma’s bizarre new capital; since last autumn, they have arrived in a steady stream. The prime minister of Thailand, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Indonesia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as a throng of aid ministers, senators, congressmen, MPs and diplomats have all called on Thein Sein. Each has returned cautious, but unmistakably impressed. David Cameron, who this week became the most important visitor so far, urged us all to ‘pay tribute … to the leadership of President Thein Sein and his government, which has been prepared to release political prisoners, hold by-elections and legalise political parties’. ‘There is a tremendous appreciation for the leadership of Thein Sein and what he has done here,’ Barack Obama’s state department gofer on Burma, Derek Mitchell, said last month.

Thein Sein became president in March last year, four months after a thuggishly rigged general election, the first since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly in 1990, only for the result to be ignored by the government. The success with which the latest election was fixed took the edge off what would otherwise have been a moment of promise: six days after the election Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, after seven and a half years of continuous confinement. It seemed at the time less like a breakthrough for the democratic movement than a sign of its impotence: the generals didn’t even need to lock up its leader anymore.

In this atmosphere, the retirement of the ‘senior general’, Than Shwe, and the formal dissolution of the junta which had ruled Burma since 1962, didn’t seem very significant. Than Shwe was a man of cartoonish charmlessness and crudity, and as prime minister, Thein Sein had been his loyal sidekick, the blinking and bespectacled face of the regime at such international gatherings as it was permitted to attend. Like most of his new ministers, he was a general who had only recently stepped out of uniform. Nothing happened in the early months of his notionally civilian government to dispel the sense of stagnation; many Burmese suspected that renewed repression of the NLD, which had rendered itself illegal by refusing to participate in the election, was only a matter of time. In July, Suu Kyi met Aung Kyi, the minister in the new government appointed as her official interlocutor. Neither side has spoken in detail about the meeting, but in August, Suu Kyi made her first working visit outside Rangoon and addressed large crowds, unmolested by the government or its thugs. A few days later, she was invited to meet Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, an encounter that would have been unthinkable under Than Shwe. And over the next few months there was a series of shifts in long established practice, none revolutionary in itself, but cumulatively breathtaking.

The state newspapers suddenly dropped their comically lurid denunciations of the Western media. (‘VOA and BBC airing skyful of lies,’ the New Light of Myanmar used to warn. ‘Beware! Don’t be bought by those slickers.’) Internet users discovered that websites had been unblocked. Newspaper and magazine editors found themselves able to get more and more past the censors, including ever larger photographs of Suu Kyi, whose image on posters, key rings and T-shirts was now sold openly on the streets. The government created a National Human Rights Commission, and the new parliament passed legislation which permitted the formation of labour organisations and granted the right to public protest.

No one outside Burma was prepared for Thein Sein’s announcement in September that, ‘according to the desire of the people’, the construction of the Myitsone dam, a vast and destructive Chinese project in north-east Burma, would be suspended. Then in October two hundred political prisoners were released, followed by 651 more in January, among them Burma’s most famous and long incarcerated dissidents. A festival of independent film took place in Rangoon organised by released prisoners; almost all the films shown were critical of the regime. Among the award winners was Ban That Scene!, a farcical satire on the hypocrisy and corruption of the film censors – who let the whole event go ahead without so much as an advance screening. In the same month, the world’s longest running war, between Burma’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, and the independence army of the Karen people, was suspended with the signing of the first ceasefire in 65 years. But just as remarkable as the changes announced by the government was the volte-face executed by Suu Kyi and the NLD.

Not only was the NLD reversing its policy of 22 years by accepting the legitimacy of the new constitution and parliament (which reserves a quarter of its seats for the Tatmadaw); and not only was the NLD to take part in this month’s by-elections but Suu Kyi herself was to be a candidate. There has been much analysis of the motives behind Thein Sein’s reforms, but within the constrained world of the opposition movement, the policy revolution initiated by Suu Kyi, and obediently agreed by the NLD executive, has been just as unexpected.

Peter Popham’s life of Aung San Suu Kyi is gripping, partisan and emotional, a welcome complement to the only other serious biography in English, Justin Wintle’s assiduously comprehensive Perfect Hostage. It contains fascinating new material and conveys, better than any other account, the stirring drama of her confrontations with the junta. But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its timing. It was delivered to the publishers in the summer of 2011, just as Burma’s changes were invisibly getting underway. ‘Her intercourse with the rulers of the country has been almost non-existent,’ Popham writes, ‘and there is little prospect of that changing.’ Between final proofs and publication, everything changed. And yet what might have been fatally bad luck becomes the book’s great strength. The Lady and the Peacock is an essential record of the struggle for democracy in Burma before the mysteries and promise of the Thein Sein era: a reminder of the 49 long years that preceded eight breathless months of reform.

No other leader commands such moral power as Aung San Suu Kyi. She has dominated the Burmese opposition movement for 24 years and for the time being enjoys an effective veto over the Burma policy of the United States and the United Kingdom, which unselfconsciously adopt her views as their own. In November, before announcing Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, Barack Obama telephoned her to secure her approval. David Cameron did the same before William Hague’s trip; and when I asked a British government official how Hague could be sure that Thein Sein was ‘sincere’, he replied that it was because the ‘the Lady’ thought so.

Unlike Nelson Mandela, she has always rejected armed struggle. Unlike the Dalai Lama, she didn’t flee from persecution. On top of this, she is slim, beautiful, witty, cultured and English-speaking. Her uniform of traditional Burmese blouse and skirt, with a tropical flower in her hair, are, as Popham says, familiar ‘to millions of people around the world who have no idea how to pronounce her name or where to place Burma on the world map’. Her image has been used to sell Chrysler cars (‘Freedom always finds a path’) and Artemide lamps (‘There is light on Earth’). Yet until she was 43, the most remarkable thing about her was her father, Aung San, whose charm, flair, and talent for exquisitely timed changes of side saw him progress from student communist and anti-colonial to Japanese-trained guerrilla, then to British ally and negotiator (with Attlee) of Burma’s independence. When he was gunned down by an embittered rival in 1947, along with his cabinet, Suu Kyi was two and she probably doesn’t remember him.

Her mother, Khin Kyi, was a stern and principled woman who founded the Burmese Girl Guides, and imparted to Suu Kyi her erect carriage and mildly bristly propriety (not only was biscuit-dunking banned, she was not allowed to lick stamps, which were to be wetted with a sponge). Suu Kyi went to the best school in the newly independent country, run by English Methodists, and lived through the last years of what in retrospect came to seem like a golden age for Rangoon, a period of cosmopolitanism, economic opportunity and political freedom. But Burmese politics never recovered from the loss of Aung San. In the early 1960s, the latest in a series of sickly governments was first dominated, then overthrown in a coup by Aung San’s former deputy, General Ne Win, who was soon nationalising industry, stifling the press, expelling foreigners, and shooting protesting students in the name of something called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Khin Kyi, a friend to the deposed democratic government, sidestepped potential awkwardness by accepting privileged exile in Delhi as Burma’s first female ambassador. There the teenage Suu Kyi met the Nehrus, became acquainted with the lives and writings of Tagore and Gandhi, and won a place at Oxford in 1964.

Suu Kyi’s student years are among the best documented and the most entertaining to read about. She represented a type which is forgotten in conventional reminiscence of the 1960s: passionate, idealistic, but determinedly and almost aggressively chaste in the face of new fashions in sexual liberation. Her college, St Hugh’s, was, in the words of her friend Ann Pasternak Slater, ‘a warren of nervous adolescent virgins and a few sexually liberated sophisticates’ with ‘an atmosphere airless and prickly as a hot railway compartment … Being laid back about being laid was de rigueur.’ Suu, as she was known, wore tight white jeans, made a fool of herself punting, had her heart broken by a dashing Pakistani, and experimented with alcohol, once and once only, in the lavatory of the Bodleian. But ‘by the popular morality of the time Suu was a pure Oriental traditionalist,’ Pasternak Slater records. ‘I’ll never go to bed with anyone except my husband,’ she told a gathering of incredulous virgins. ‘Now? I just go to bed hugging my pillow.’

She was almost Victorian in her tastes: her favourite author was Kipling; her second son was named after Kim. ‘“Pukka” may seem an old-fashioned, colonial word to use, but that’s how she came across,’ the Oxford academic Peter Carey, another friend, told Wintle. ‘One noticed how, every year, she was the first to get her Christmas cards out.’ But she was kind, gracious and egalitarian, as warm in her dealings with the college cleaners as with her friends, many of them Indian and African, whom her smarter British contemporaries regarded as lame. Most were only dimly aware of her parentage, although she did not avoid taking advantage of her connections. Leaving Oxford with a disappointing Third in PPE, she moved to London to live in the Chelsea home of her guardian, the former high commissioner to Delhi, Paul Gore-Booth.

The next twenty years were marked by frustration and underachievement. She was burdened by a sense of mission, without any clear idea of what form it might take. Pasternak Slater remembers her as ‘serious, sad, uncertain where to go, all determination and an unknown void to cross’. She moved to New York, began another degree, abandoned it, then got a job in an unglamorous corner of UN headquarters thanks to another well-placed friend of the family, the secretary-general U Thant. (‘You not only have the courage of your convictions,’ a UN colleague told her. ‘You have the courage of your connections!’) Marriage – to Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibet and a friend of the Gore-Booths – deferred but did not dispel this sense of unfulfilled destiny, which was evident in letters written during their courtship.

I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.

Would you mind very much should such a situation ever arise? How probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is there.

Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment. And yet such fears are so futile and inconsequential: if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure that love and compassion will triumph in the end.

Popham refers to this as ‘the mother of all pre-nups’, but of course the dramatic irony derives from subsequent events. At the time, it might have seemed merely a self-dramatising reverie. Aris was an impractical and benignly self-centred husband; reading between the lines of Popham’s tactful account and those of family friends, there are hints that the marriage was not always happy. Pasternak Slater speaks of ‘anxiety, cramp and strain’ in the North Oxford house. ‘It was a very rocky road,’ according to Peter Carey. ‘For the first fifteen years of the marriage it was all Michael.’

Suu Kyi wrote pamphlets for children about Burma, Bhutan and her father, and exhibited signs of that incorruptibility which is an asset to a political prisoner but an embarrassment in North Oxford. If the food at a dinner party was awful, she would say so. When supervising games at children’s parties, Pasternak Slater remembers, she would insist that the ‘rules were enforced with unyielding exactitude, and my astonished children, bending them ever so slightly, once found themselves forbidden the prize. She was an uncomfortably absolute figure of justice.’

Beyond a vague and defensive pride in her father, she displayed no active interest in Burmese politics or in the community of exiles in Britain or the US. Then in 1988 Khin Kyi had a stroke and Suu Kyi travelled to Rangoon to nurse her mother. Her visit coincided with a period of unprecedented unrest and student opposition to the elderly Ne Win and his regime. ‘Suddenly [her destiny] was there,’ Popham writes, ‘standing before her, unarguably huge and fearful and compelling.’

With hindsight many political careers take on a glaze of inevitability, but not that of Suu Kyi. It is clear that she had thought for a long time about her father, his example and his unfinished nation-building project. The inchoate and internally divided opposition movement of students, trade unionists, civilian intellectuals and disaffected former military men badly needed a unifying leader. But for six months, as her mother slowly declined and the junta flailed, she played no active part in demonstrations against the regime. After repeated petitions, she agreed to allow protest organisers to meet in her mother’s large lakeside villa at 54 University Avenue. Eventually, in August 1988, she gave a speech at a huge rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the symbolic heart of Burma. A video of the occasion can be found on YouTube; and even this poor quality recording captures some of the momentousness of the occasion. ‘The stage,’ Popham writes,

was packed with young people, many wearing yellow armbands; a line of young bodyguards wearing headbands sat or crouched watchfully at the edge. A famous film star called Htun Wai, a comfortable looking figure in a lilac jacket and longyi, stepped up to the microphone and introduced Suu Kyi with a vertical flourish of his arm: ‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!’ He lowered the microphone six inches and moved to the side. She took his place centre stage, her hands clasped over a folder of documents at her waist. And without preliminaries, without hesitation and without even the ghost of a smile she began to speak in a high, loud voice.

‘Reverend monks and people!’ she began. ‘This public rally is aimed at informing the whole world of the will of the people … Our purpose is to show that the entire people entertain the keenest desire for a multi-party democratic system of government.’ She appealed for discipline and unity, called for a minute’s silence for the students killed in demonstrations, and then, before turning to the junta, began to speak of herself:

A number of people are saying that since I have spent most of my time abroad and am married to a foreigner I could not be familiar with the ramifications of this country’s politics. I wish to speak from this platform very frankly and openly to the people. It is true that I have lived abroad. It is also true that I am married to a foreigner. These facts have never interfered and will never interfere with or lessen my love and devotion for my country by any measure or degree.

Another thing which some people have been saying is that I know nothing of Burmese politics. The trouble is that I know too much.

Thus she deftly neutralised her greatest potential weakness as a leader – 28 years living abroad – with her greatest strength: Aung San. ‘I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,’ she continued. ‘This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.’ With these words, the relationship between the junta and the protesters changed for ever.

Since Ne Win’s coup, Burmese had watched their country slip further and further behind its neighbours in development, education and international influence. In the absence of any nation-building achievements, the Tatmadaw had only one claim to authority, other than brute force: the anti-colonial legacy of Aung San. In taking on the mantle of her father, Suu Kyi was publicly stripping the generals of the only legitimacy they had. Worse, she was implicitly comparing Ne Win to the British colonisers he had fought to displace.

Hundreds of thousands of people witnessed the speech. Whether they heard it, given the inadequate public address system, is another matter; but the impact of her sudden appearance was enormous. Very few writers on Suu Kyi consider the role of personal ego in her career, and Popham is not an exception. But I suspect that this occasion did much to trigger her metamorphosis: the realisation, visible in the faces of the multitude, of what her inheritance meant; the sudden, visceral consciousness of her dawning power.

For a month, the government abandoned its authority in Rangoon, which was taken over by collectives of students, trade unionists, professional organisations and monks. By the time they were suppressed, Suu Kyi’s commitment to the cause appears to have been complete. The NLD was established, and by early 1989 she was travelling energetically around the country, consolidating the party branches that were mushrooming in the smallest towns. The account of this campaign is one of the best things in Popham’s book, thanks to his principal biographical find, the diaries of Ma Thanegi, a writer and artist who was Suu Kyi’s constant travelling companion. They are dry, gossipy, intimate, and revealing about Suu Kyi’s cunning, particularly the way she used local military commanders’ low expectations of women against them. The climactic scene describes a confrontation in the town of Danubyu in the Irrawaddy Delta where she defied an order to leave, and walked alone down the middle of the street, daring the line of soldiers ahead of her to open fire. At the last minute, a senior officer arrived on the scene, and stood the soldiers down; the captain, who had been about to give the order to fire, tore off his own epaulettes in disgust. ‘Her whole prior life had been a preparation for that moment,’ Popham declares, but he is contradicted on the same page by Suu Kyi herself. In situations of sudden danger, ‘you can’t make up your mind what you’ll do,’ she recalled:

It’s a decision you have to make there and then. Do I stand or run? Whatever you may have thought before, when it comes to the crunch, when you’re actually faced with that kind of danger, you have to make up your mind on the spot … and you never know what decision you will take.

Here again, one senses something that is rarely glimpsed: the instinctive, spontaneous aspect of her temperament, not the Gandhian resolve of the martyr, but the animal courage of the soldier. With hindsight, though, she was too aggressive in her confrontation with the government. It was obvious that, except by killing them, the junta had no idea how to quell the protesters and its disarray was visible in its actions.

In an attempt to disarm the movement, Ne Win had formally stepped down as head of state. Acting through a puppet president, he first tolerated the Rangoon protesters, then ordered them to be massacred, next purged his own government, closed newspapers and banned public gatherings – and finally announced multi-party elections. The newly reconstituted junta styled itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council; its comically sinister acronym SLORC epitomised its cack-handed nastiness. The generals looked scared, lost and ridiculous; but instead of devising ways of easing them out of government, the opposition heaped new humiliations on them.

Unilaterally, the NLD announced new public holidays, including Burma Human Rights Day to commemorate the killing of a celebrated student protester, and Fascist Resistance Day – the implication being that Ne Win and his crew were as worthy of the epithet as the Japanese. It announced a campaign of civil disobedience, and held a competition for the rudest anti-regime slogans. Eventually, Suu Kyi herself took a step she had so far resisted, a personal attack on the ‘megalomaniac’ Ne Win. Suggestions that she make a deal behind the scenes, perhaps guaranteeing the junta the loot which its members were assumed to have squirrelled away, were rejected. The NLD was in the right, of course: the generals, like the children at the Oxford birthday party, were behaving badly. No one could argue that they deserved a prize. But if they had been handed a few sweeties, the game might have come to a happier and less bloody end.

Faced with a fundamental challenge to its authority and with no realistic face-saving compromise, the government was left with the choice of capitulating or lashing out – and so, less than a year after her speech at Shwedagon, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. ‘What did she foresee?’ Popham asks: ‘A march on Rangoon by millions of her supporters, herself like the French Revolution’s Marianne, brandishing the party flag? Ne Win … clambering on board the last helicopter and flying away, like the Americans leaving Saigon, like Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fleeing Manila?’

The hardest of her three long periods of detention was the first, which began in July 1989. At first, the junta permitted her husband and sons to visit her, in the hope that they would persuade her to leave with them for Oxford. When it became clear that this wouldn’t work, it refused them visas. This was what set her incarceration apart from that of Sakharov or Mandela. The government wanted her out; at any moment, with a word to her guards, she could have been on the way to the airport and a comfortable life of celebrity exile. In interviews, she has always briskly refused invitations to mourn the separation from her family, but there can’t be any doubt of its emotional cost.

At first she received letters and food parcels from home, until Khin Nyunt, the junta’s intelligence chief, had one opened. The contents, including lipstick and a Jane Fonda workout video, were photographed by the state media, the point being to emphasise how well the Lady lived in comparison to the poor she claimed to represent. After that, she refused all deliveries from outside, all supplies offered by the regime, and sold furniture to pay for food. Malnourishment made her hair fall out and her eyes fail.

The 1990 election went ahead and the NLD won 392 of the 485 seats. The government party won ten. But the generals wriggled and prevaricated, and the NLD members left at liberty lacked the gumption to mobilise and articulate outrage at the fraud. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 put the seal on her international reputation, but failed to bring her freedom. In 54 University Avenue, Suu Kyi developed the routine which saw her through her detention: meditation, exercise, housework, the BBC World Service and reading, particularly detective fiction.

She was free between 1995 and 2000, years of uneasy confrontation and intense, nightmarish oppression. This was the period when the government’s cruelty reached its apex; its behaviour then explains why many people, within the country and without, will never trust a Burmese general. An old family friend of Suu Kyi died in jail, having been imprisoned for possessing an unlicensed fax machine. A foreign diplomat who had been taking too much interest in the Lady returned home one evening to find that his dog had had its eyes burned out. In 1999, Aris was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, and applied for a visa to make a last visit to his wife. The junta proposed instead that she go to him; to encourage her, they cut off phone calls between her and her dying husband. After Aris’s death soldiers blocked her attempts to travel round the country. During one confrontation in 2000, she spent nine days sitting in her car, refusing to budge, before being hauled away to begin 19 more months of house arrest. In 2003, the regime finally made what seems to have been a genuine attempt to assassinate her, when two thousand thugs were unleashed on her convoy outside the town of Depayin, murdering at least seventy of her followers. She was saved by the quick wits of her driver, and escaped to be arrested again and to begin her longest period of continuous detention.

She wrote little under house arrest, knowing that her words could be seized and used against her. But over the years she has produced a compact body of interviews, newspaper columns and essays, including her most famous, ‘Freedom from Fear’. ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear,’ it begins. ‘Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.’ Eliminate fear, she argues, and most of the ills besetting Burma – corruption, favouritism, internal division and ignorance – will melt away. The argument both humanises and diminishes the generals: they aren’t mighty and intimidating figures – they are terrified, like the rest of us. But a measure of fear, like physical pain, is useful and often essential, and unarmed fearlessness will overcome an army only when everyone is as courageous as Suu Kyi. A remarkable number of Burmese did meet that standard, and their numbers were refreshed by a younger generation. But twice – after the arrests of 1988-89, and those which followed the Saffron Uprising of Buddhist monks in 2007 – a point came when almost everyone prepared to go to prison for the cause had been arrested. What then? What are those with the usual complement of fear to do when the fearless have all gone?

‘Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights,’ the essay continues:

fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form is the fear which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small acts of courage that help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.

She quotes a Burmese poem:

Emerald cool we may be
As water in cupped hands
But oh that we might be
As splinters of glass
In cupped hands.

‘Glass splinters,’ she wrote, ‘the smallest with its sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush, could be seen as a vivid symbol of the spark of courage that is an essential attribute of those who would free themselves from the grip of oppression.’ From the junta’s point of view, Suu Kyi must have seemed closer to water – unyielding, relentless, lethal in her softness – than to shards of glass.

By the end of her first period of detention, her thought had shifted in ways which would have caused to her to shrink from such imagery. The key, as Popham explains, was Buddhism and, in particular, Burmese practices of meditation. At first, like many political prisoners, she adopted them as a means of filling her immense solitude. But the concepts of right speech and metta, or loving kindness, became central to her political method and blunted her tendency to spikiness. ‘Not only should one speak only the truth, one’s speech should lead to harmony among beings, it should be kind and pleasant and it should be beneficial.’ No more frankness about bad cooking – and no more ad hominem attacks on dictators.

Her last and longest spell under house arrest brought nothing but bad news: the extravagantly wasteful relocation to Naypyidaw, the suppression of the monks and their Saffron Uprising, 140,000 deaths in Cyclone Nargis, and the transparent fraudulence of the 2010 election. The Lady and the Peacock doesn’t have a happy ending, but it manages to be bleakly uplifting. Without spelling it out, Popham sets himself the question plenty of people were asking discreetly in the early months of last year: if Aung San Suu Kyi were to die with no change in Burma’s status quo, what would her achievement have been? It was easy, back then, to give a pessimistic response, but Popham is right to point to how much better off Burma, and the world, are for her life. Thanks in great part to her charisma, the country’s plight is permanently on the international conscience, and her oppressors perpetually on the defensive. After a century of political bloodshed in Burma, she established within a few years the principle of non-violence, with indirect effects around the world. Popham describes how the theorist of non-violent resistance Gene Sharp refined his ideas on a visit to the Thai-Burmese border. His manual From Dictatorship to Democracy was first published in Burmese, and went on to inspire activism in Serbia, Iran, Zimbabwe, Tunisia and Egypt. Only two people are directly worse off as result of Suu Kyi’s sacrifice: her sons, Alexander and Kim.

At the time of Suu Kyi’s release in November 2010, Burma still looked and acted like a police state. Spies with handycams and motorbikes monitored the comings and goings at the NLD’s Rangoon headquarters. Foreign journalists entering the country had to masquerade as tourists and evade the spooks by switching taxis in mid-journey and moving between half-empty hotels every few days; several who neglected these precautions, including Popham, were scooped up and deported. Meetings with opposition activists took place clandestinely in the back rooms of cafés and restaurants; care had to be taken in dealings with Burmese guides and drivers to avoid leaving them vulnerable to awkward questions – or worse. Until the moment of Suu Kyi’s release, the anxiously expectant supporters gathered at the roadblock on University Avenue had no idea whether it would actually happen; at one moment, the crowd crept too close to the barricade and the police cocked and raised their rifles.

By the time of the by-elections earlier this month, the atmosphere was transformed. Journalist visas were given to most who sought them, the lurkers at the NLD had dwindled to a disconsolate skeleton staff, and the hotels, which had doubled their prices, were packed with legitimate tourists and a new influx of businessmen from Thailand, Singapore and Japan. The 2010 elections had been a struggle to report because of the well-founded reluctance of most Burmese to talk politics with a stranger. But this time around, people in the smallest villages wanted to talk about Suu Kyi.

On polling day, 1 April, she woke in Wah Theinkha, a village in her Kawhmu constituency which had been chosen for its obscurity, poverty and mixed ethnic character (most of its inhabitants are ethnic Karen, the border people with whom the government agreed a ceasefire in January). Pursued by a hundred journalists in yapping convoy, she made a tour of remote polling stations to the same displays of public adoration which had accompanied her through the previous weeks of campaigning. Villages had wetted the roads she travelled along to quell the dust. Women holding babies proffered bunches of flowers (in earlier campaigning, her convoy had included a pick-up truck to carry them). Packs of children bounced up and down, chanting ‘Long life to Mother Suu!’ And this was before the results were announced: 43 seats won by the NLD in the 44 constituencies it contested (the one exception went to an opposition ethnic party). There were rapturous, traffic-stopping celebrations that evening as the results were flashed up on the big screen mounted on the roof of the NLD’s shabby headquarters.

It was vindication for Suu Kyi, who was risking more than she admitted. Her participation was a huge prize for Thein Sein and his regime, an endorsement without price; and some of her most loyal supporters thought it was premature. ‘When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi goes into parliament … the world will think that there’s democracy in Burma,’ the veteran NLD member Win Tin, a political prisoner for 19 years, said in January. ‘But inside the repression is still going on, there is fighting in the ethnic areas and people are still very poor. The hardliners will consolidate, and think that they have it easy now. It’s a very dangerous thing.’ She could have encouraged her NLD lieutenants to stand, but remained aloof herself at least until the next general elections in 2015, or until such time as reform was irreversible. But her participation was more important than the small foothold in parliament which the by-elections secured for the NLD. ‘The more important part of our campaign was to raise the political awareness of our people, and in this I can say we have been extremely successful,’ Suu Kyi said two days before the polls. ‘That in itself is a triumph for us, whatever the outcome of the elections.’

It is no reproach to Popham that he did not anticipate these changes. No one else had an inkling either – because in important ways they makes no sense. Given the fact of the reforms, one can adduce reasons for them: a desire to offset excessive dependence on China, for example, or a wish to bring an end to sanctions, thereby enabling the junta to enrich itself with new foreign investment. But these do not explain the timing of the reforms, or give a clue to where they are heading. When they began, the regime was no more loathed, isolated and incompetent than it had been for years. If anything, the 2010 elections and the release of Suu Kyi had reduced the pressure on it. The Arab Spring caused unease in authoritarian states around the world, but having weathered the Saffron Uprising four years earlier, the Burmese generals had less reason to worry than most. Why didn’t Thein Sein simply continue as a smilier version of Than Shwe?

Two explanations present themselves. The first is that the unconstrained liberal democracy sought by Suu Kyi is drastically different from the eventual arrangement envisaged by Thein Sein. The recent history of South-East Asia presents various examples of pseudo and quasi-democracies which, for a while at least, have prospered, from the parliamentary dictatorship that was Suharto’s Indonesia (32 years) to the authoritarian democracies of Malaysia and Singapore (49 years and counting). Their success depends on delivering economic growth high enough for the steady improvement in living standards to soothe the frustration of political repression. Popham quotes some fascinating conversations from 2002, when Suu Kyi, it’s now clear, was secretly on the verge of reaching a deal with Khin Nyunt before he was abruptly imprisoned by Than Shwe. The details sound remarkably familiar. ‘They will move towards some kind of democracy on Suharto regime lines,’ Popham was told, ‘with 25 per cent of seats reserved for the military.’ If this is still the goal, and if Suu Kyi knows it, she must be confident that she can push the government further than it intends to go. But the news may come as a shock to those EU governments scampering to dismantle sanctions in the belief that freedom is now assured.

The second possibility is that the changes originate in Thein Sein himself, that in ways still obscure, he and a clique of officers close to him have imbibed something of the reforming spirit of a Gorbachev or de Klerk. Anecdotal accounts of his career suggest he is more decent, likeable and less corrupt than his predecessors. The NLD’s success in the by-elections makes it harder than ever to be cynical about a man who apparently made no effort to cheat (the election irregularities listed by the NLD – a candidate assaulted with a flying betel nut; the circulation of rude poems about Suu Kyi – were farcical). His party’s humiliation at the ballot box could be seen as proof of his sincerity.

If Thein Sein is carrying out his reforms because they are the right, rather than the self-serving, thing to do, then they – and he – are all the more vulnerable. Burma’s military governments survived a series of internal purges, coups and counter-coups. Than Shwe locked up Ne Win and Khin Nyunt and their sons; the switch to civilian government may have been a way of ensuring that he avoided a similar fate. It’s easy to imagine a group of hardline officers, alarmed at the runaway pace of democratic reform and the threat it presents to their privileges, finding a pretext for intervention, announcing Thein Sein’s ‘retirement’ on health grounds, and rounding up Suu Kyi and her cohort once again. Such a move would not even be illegal under the constitution, which allows the head of the armed forces to take over in an ‘emergency’. The laws which allow for the arrest of political prisoners, and the judges who obediently sentence them, remain in place. The international squawking provoked by such a move would be louder than ever. But no country is going to invade Burma for the sake of democracy, and the generals know it.

13 April