They waited for hours in the merciless tropical sun for their Lady to come. On this sweltering day in the height of the dry season, when even dusty palm fronds failed to catch a breeze, tens of thousands of Burmese lined roads and fields to openly venerate Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon who inspires devotion that is nearly spiritual in its intensity. For the first time in her life, the veteran opposition leader is directly participating in Burma's political process by running for a seat in April 1 by-elections, which will fill fewer than 50 vacancies in Burma's 664-seat parliament. On the campaign trail in late March, Suu Kyi was visiting her constituency in the township of Kawhmu, a landscape of bamboo shacks and parched rice paddies in the impoverished flatlands of the Irrawaddy Delta.
A year ago, flashing a clandestine image of the Nobel laureate known as the Lady (or, alternatively, Auntie Suu or Mother Suu) could invite arrest. In 1990, her National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections that Burma's long-ruling junta ignored. Until late 2010, Suu Kyi was confined under house arrest by the army generals, who locked her up for most of two decades. Back then, to speak of the Lady was to converse in whispers.
And now? On the campaign trail in Kawhmu, supporters openly waved the opposition party's red flag emblazoned with a star and golden peacock. Others wore T-shirts with the 66-year-old's graceful visage or that of her father, independence hero Aung San. Even those associated with the army's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), were charmed. "I went out to greet her," said the daughter of the USDP organizer in Kawhmu. "I love Auntie Suu."
Suu Kyi's mere candidacy is proof of remarkable reforms under way in Burma, which the junta renamed Myanmar in 1989. After flawed elections in 2010 that supplanted the results of the 1990 polls, the country's junta began transferring power to a quasi-civilian government dominated by the USDP. Few people inside or outside Burma put much stock in the retired generals who control the country. But in rapid order, the new regime, helmed by a soft-spoken ex-general named Thein Sein, has released hundreds of political prisoners, loosened media restrictions and lifted much of the culture of fear that stifled the nation for decades. A ban on the NLD's political participation was overturned, and Suu Kyi was allowed to contest the April 1 polls. "This small by-election of only 48 seats carries a symbolism far greater than the number," says a Western diplomat in Burma. "This is an opportunity for the Burmese to decide at least a small part of their future."
Still, a sole woman and her political party cannot serve as a struggling nation's only savior. Even if the NLD wins nearly all the seats up for grabs in the April 1 contest, it will not challenge the USDP's grip on parliament, where one-quarter of seats are also reserved for active military members. And not everyone is convinced that the political thaw will prove long-lasting or immune to a backlash by xenophobic hard-liners.
Then there's the economy. A free and fair contest on April 1 will probably trigger Western nations to begin lifting sanctions imposed because of the country's appalling human-rights record, but coaxing Burma's economy into the modern age will be a decades-long process. "It's not just the government that needs to change," says Aung Tun, a local economist. "It's the whole economy, the whole society."
It is hard to overstate just how broken Burma is. In economic terms, the country is aspiring just to become a Bangladesh. One-third of the nation lives below the poverty line. By the reckoning of watchdog Transparency International, Burma ties with Afghanistan as the third most corrupt nation in the world, outdone only by North Korea and Somalia. "You can call it 'transaction costs' or 'lubricants' or whatever," says Thida Thant, an entrepreneur who's a member of the Myanmar Business Executives Association. "But the way to do business here can never be 100% ethical." An audit by the new government has alleged rampant corruption at six ministries, some of which are still headed by the same men (now retired from the army) as before. Wealth is concentrated in the pockets of state enterprises or government cronies. Electricity is spotty even in the cities. Phones, as Suu Kyi once joked, should be approached with a prayer. Credit cards are useless pieces of plastic in all but a few establishments. "For many decades, we fell more and more behind, but people could not say the truth about what was going on," says Toe Naing Mann, the son of Thura Shwe Mann, the former junta's No. 3 general who now leads the lower house of parliament. "Now the political structure is changing, but the economic structure needs to reform in parallel. The problem is we don't have enough people with the technical know-how to make that happen."
Despite its Rip Van Winkle economy, Burma is waking up to find itself in an important geostrategic position. Not only is the country wedged between China and India, Asia's fast-growing and competing powers, but its natural treasures from timber and hydropower to natural gas and minerals have caught the attention of energy-hungry nations hoping to turn Burma into the world's newest economic frontier.
So far the rush has come mainly from Asian countries, most notably China. But if the by-elections proceed without a hitch a limited number of overseas monitors are being allowed in for the vote Western nations are likely to start allowing their companies to venture in. Any effect will not be immediate: in the U.S., for instance, changes to financial embargoes have to make their way through Congress. Nevertheless, many in this nation of 50 million plus people are preparing frantically for a postsanctions environment. Practically every week brings news of another foreign trade delegation arriving to sniff out business opportunities. English signs across the commercial capital of Rangoon promise the fruits of "multi-language academies," "diplomas in business enhancements" and even a preschool that will help toddlers "get knowledged."