The timing matters a lot less than the fact that Suu Kyi's release is essential if the stop-start negotiations between her and the junta, already ongoing for 18 months, are to yield any results. This is make-or-break time, and more so for the junta than for Suu Kyi. She has little to lose—after all, her legitimacy (as the leader of the party that won the 1990 general election), integrity and stoic acceptance of house arrest enable her to occupy the moral high ground. The generals, on the other hand, are under growing pressure to thrash out with their arch nemesis a framework to move the country forward. Burma is in desperate shape due to a combination of grievous abuse and mismanagement by the military regime and international isolation over allegations of forced labor and the treatment of dissidents, chief among them Suu Kyi. Letting her go is the vital first step on Burma's road to recovery. "There's no way out of these problems, unless the generals have her on board," says a Western diplomat.
When Suu Kyi does walk through her sky blue metal gate, Burma's ailments won't be magically healed. Most are chronic and beyond the scope of one woman—even an icon like Suu Kyi—to cure. The country is devoid of the institutions needed to build a civil society: a democratic legislature, a functioning bureaucracy and education and health systems, an independent judiciary, a free press. But Suu Kyi stands at the very least as a symbol of hope. In the markets, tea shops and offices of the crumbling capital, Rangoon, the whispered conversations about politics now contain wisps of optimism rarely heard after four decades of military rule. "We believe she can help get the country out of this mess," says tour guide Thet Aung.
That depends on what kind of deal Suu Kyi and the junta are striking. In truth, no one apart from Suu Kyi, two or three of her top aides and a handful of military leaders knows what will transpire, but most local observers aren't expecting anything that will give Suu Kyi a political or power-sharing role or a speedy end to military rule. "That's too big a leap," says Kyi Maung, a former NLD vice chairman. More likely is that the government and the NLD will work together to try to bring relief as rapidly as possible to a people being crushed by inflation, corruption and epidemics of aids and other diseases. Kyi Maung is cautiously optimistic that "reason will prevail," not least because Suu Kyi has mellowed and is willing to compromise. Where she isn't likely to give ground, however, is over the release of several hundred NLD members from Burma's notoriously harsh prison system. "These jails are our killing fields," says Kyi Maung. (The junta did release five political prisoners last Friday.)
While many diplomats agree that Suu Kyi will prove to be more flexible, they are divided over whether the military is sincere about continuing rapprochement. "I don't think they know themselves," says a diplomat. "They may have got themselves into something they don't know how to get out of." The real tests will be whether or not the military maintains a mechanism for dealing with Suu Kyi and instituting reforms, and what happens when the time comes to discuss political change. One conundrum is what to do about the 1990 election outcome in which the NID won 82% of the seats in a parliament the military refuses to convene. Suu Kyi has always insisted that the results be recognized. "Suu Kyi is ready to deal," notes Burma expert Joseph Silverstein of Rutgers University in the U.S., "but not to sell out."
Suu Kyi has better cards to play today than when she was released in 1995 (and later rearrested). Then, the economy was in much stronger shape. The local currency, the kyat, was a relatively healthy 130 to the dollar, Rangoon's streets sported new cars and the government could boast more than $6 billion in foreign direct investment since opening up the country after more than a quarter-century of socialist isolation imposed by recently detained dictator Ne Win. Now, the economy is teetering on the precipice. Growth is negligible, the kyat is pushing 1,000 to the dollar and inflation is running between 50% and 70%. Economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and threats of sanctions from the International Labor Organization have companies such as Pepsi steadily pulling out. "At this point, disinvestment is greater than investment," says a Western diplomat.
That economic message seems to have finally got through to Senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the junta's official name. Until recently, the 69-year-old Than Shwe was viewed by many as an ailing figurehead, anxious to retire. Real power was supposed to reside in the hands of Army Commander-in-Chief General Maung Aye and Intelligence Chief General Khin Nyunt. But Than Shwe showed he was the man in charge when he ordered the arrests of Ne Win and his family members in March for allegedly planning a coup. That Than Shwe would move against Ne Win and purge his supporters in the military shows that Than Shwe will brook no dissent on either political or economic fronts. Diplomats say Ne Win, his clan and their followers in the army were opposed to the dialogue with Suu Kyi. Now, says a Western diplomat, "Than Shwe has never been stronger."
Than Shwe may also be influenced by asean leaders who are fed up that Burma's pariah status has blackened the organization's reputation since the nation joined in 1997. And he may be concerned about his own legacy. A family man who dotes on his three daughters and one grandson, Than Shwe, some Burma watchers say, views the impasse with Suu Kyi as somewhat of a family squabble that he wants to set right. This theory has Than Shwe acknowledging that Burma's military has lost the love of much of the populace for holding on to power, and that he wants to be seen as the man who at least started the process of moving the country toward a more inclusive political system.
In the end, however, Than Shwe is a military man, and that's where his chief loyalty lies. He still firmly believes the army is best suited to rule Burma and its fractious ethnic groups. Even some diplomats agree a transition to a freer society will have to be slow and gradual as the country has no democratic institutions. But the struggle to build them may well begin with this first thaw between two once implacable foes—and when Aung San Suu Kyi takes those first steps toward freedom.