By the old Shwedagon pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the tourists, there stands the tall white-washed tomb of Queen Supayalat, immortalized by the poet Rudyard Kipling in his lines about a beautiful “Burma girl” whose “name was Supi-Yaw-Lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen”. On one side of “Her Late Majesty, Chief Queen Suphayalatt” I find a memorial to U Thant, the former United Nations secretary-general; on the other, that to ambassador KhinKyi, widow of this country’s independence hero, General Aung San, and a formidable figure in her own right. One day there will be a monument somewhere hereabouts to their even more formidable daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who by then will probably be a former president, and is already treated like a queen.
Yet, we need to remind ourselves that she is not yet president. Not for her the Czech playwright Václav Havel’s magical three-month ascent from persecuted dissident to the president’s castle. Instead, there are three years of complex struggle ahead before Suu Kyi may, at age 70, become head of state. As important, these years of transition, until parliamentary elections in 2015, followed by the indirect election of a president, will be decisive for the future of this impoverished, traumatized and divided country. So much needs to be done in three interlocking areas, which can be labelled with three Ps: politics, peace and the people.
The politics are intricate. Most international coverage has focused on the relationship between president Thein Sein — a decent, if dull, man — genuinely concerned about the condition of his poor county, and the uncrowned queen. One is told of a pivotal moment in August 2011, when Suu Kyi was invited to the president’s private quarters in the surreal new capital of Nay Piy Taw, and welcomed especially warmly by his wife. But as important is her working relationship with the speaker of the parliament, Shwe Mann, another former general with large political ambitions of his own.
Meanwhile, there has to be a proper election law, electoral register and the conditions for a fair campaign. Her National League for Democracy has to organize, mobilize and win a landslide victory among the country’s ethnic Burman majority. (Bet on that.) They should prepare themselves well for government. (Don’t be so sure of that.) They also have to forge alliances with parties from the large swathes of this South-East Asian Yugoslavia inhabited by ethnic minorities. Then, despite a 25 per cent appointed military block in parliament, they must get the more than 75 per cent parliamentary vote required to remove the current constitutional bar on someone with close foreign relatives — that is, her — becoming president.
Though some Burmese observers remain sceptical, I would place a large bet that, one way or another, this will happen. But of course it involves her (as it involved Havel) doing real politics, rather than remaining a pure moral heroine or immediately becoming a British-style constitutional monarch. She herself makes no bones about this. At the unprecedented literary festival that brought me here, she talked eloquently about novels and poetry, but said that almost every moment of her life is now spent on politics.
As important as these high politics, and intertwined with them, are the other two Ps. It is vital that this country achieves peace as soon as possible. To do so, Burma must be a Yugoslavia-in-reverse. Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic state that fell apart in politically orchestrated inter-ethnic violence precisely at the moment of a very imperfect transition to democracy. Burma, now officially Myanmar, is a multi-ethnic state in which many ethnic minority areas have already experienced decades of armed conflict. As I write, a Chinese-brokered negotiation may still not actually stop fierce fighting in the resource-rich Kachin state. If these issues are not resolved before the 2015 elections, with a degree of federalism, which itself would require constitutional change, then voters might be polarized, late-Yugoslav-style, along ethno-religious chauvinist lines. In Kachin Baptist churches, I am told, prayers have been heard that “God grant us independence”.
Last, but really first, are the people. When I last travelled here, in 2000, before being blacklisted from the country for twelve years, the place was strewn with the military regime’s Orwellian propaganda posters bearing slogans such as “People's Desire”. But the truth is that the military and their cronies — “crony” has itself become a Burmese word — have for decades realized their own desires at the expense of their people’s. Their lavish, high-walled villas contrast obscenely with the hovels of the majority of the population who still struggle to subsist as farmers. Myanmar has slipped to 149th on the UN human development index, with an average of just four years of schooling. To make things worse, those poor farmers’ export price for their rice has fallen, and many have plunged further into debt to extortionate local moneylenders. Meanwhile, foreign businesses pour in: Carlsberg is the latest, with Best Western hotels to follow. A long-legged Sloane Ranger tells me how she and her husband plan to open a cool restaurant downtown (“kind of Soho House look”) where those new investors will presumably scoff and quaff their fill with the junta’s old cronies.
The good news is that many able and well-intentioned people — highly qualified Burmese returning from long spells abroad, almost superhumanly magnanimous former political prisoners, NGO activists and foreign donors — are working with the current government, as well as with the NLD, to ensure that the essential transparency (especially for extractive industries), accountability, appropriate economic policies and the rule of law are put in place right now. Otherwise, Orwellian dictatorship will morph into entrenched crony capitalism.
Whatever the criticisms to be made of Suu Kyi — for example, over her apparently tactical reticence on the appalling ethno-religious violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas — there is no doubt that her global charisma and her tireless, unflinching personal engagement contribute incomparably to the scale and quality of this support. That is another reason she must be, will be, Burma’s new queen — sorry, president.
So there it is: the fairy tale is over but the happy ending has yet to begin. There are three years of tough, complex politics ahead. This will not be neat, pretty or clean: such transitions never are. But, with a lot of help from its friends, Myanmar still has a historic chance of ending up a far, far better place than it has ever been.