Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy rally in Rangoon. (Will Baxter for Maclean’s)

By Brendan Brady / Rangoon

The sun-baked dirt road was already chock full of chanting supporters when Phyu Phyu Thinn emerged from her headquarters in downtown Rangoon. They had been waiting for hours in the sweltering heat to catch a glimpse of the politician, whom they hurriedly pursued on foot after she was whisked away in an open-top vehicle. The size and furious energy of the crowd were startling sights in Burma, where stultifying and violent military rule has long suppressed public expressions of support for figures outside the ruling clique. The last time the streets of Rangoon rang with calls for political change, in 2007, soldiers gunned down scores of protesters and detained thousands more.

“We have been living in fear for a long time,” Thinn, 40, who is the country’s leading HIV activist and has served multiple stints in prison for participating in protests, told an attentive audience packed inside a Buddhist temple. “But times have changed. We should not be afraid anymore.” It is a hopeful message that Thinn and her fellow National League for Democracy (NLD) member, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 66, have balanced with caution as they run in parliamentary by-elections on April 1; they will mark their party’s return to electoral politics after being sidelined for over two decades.

Burma’s transition away from military rule had an inauspicious start. In November 2010, the army held a national election that was widely seen as a ploy by the junta to rule through plainclothes proxies in order to rehabilitate the country’s image and end Western-imposed economic sanctions. The army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was dominated by former military officers who used their patronage networks to steamroll threadbare competition: many of the NLD’s leading politicians were in jail or barred from participating. Suu Kyi was released from years of house arrest only after the vote. For good measure, the 2008 constitution reserved a quarter of all parliamentary seats and control of key ministries for the army. With its hands tied, the NLD decided to boycott the election and expressed little faith in the new regime.

But a breathtaking series of reforms over the past year has transformed the substance and tone of the power handover, lifting the climate of fear that long gripped the country and paving the way for the first steps of a democratic system to gain traction. Since taking the reins in March of last year, President U Thein Sein, a retired general, has emerged as an unlikely reformer—“Burma’s Gorbachev,” as some analysts have dubbed him. The government released hundreds of political prisoners, allowed citizens to form unions and hold public protests, relaxed media controls and attempted to de-escalate fighting with ethnic separatist armies. Thein Sein has made overtures to Suu Kyi—when the army ruled, its generals made every attempt to denigrate her—and when he addressed parliament this month, he even criticized the past leadership: “Our people suffered under various governments and different systems,” he said. “The people will judge our government based on its actual achievements.”

Thinn, the HIV activist, has been tirelessly delivering speeches and receiving garlands and warm wishes from ecstatic supporters. And in the few moments when she rests, her party’s chief symbols—Suu Kyi and the NLD’s red flag emblazoned with a peacock and star—continue to circulate the city on T-shirts, taxis and pushcarts. A year ago, such public displays of devotion to the “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known, were grounds for arrest. Today, NLD supporters are not losing the chance to voice their opinions. “Do you know who that is?” an exuberant commuter walking past a poster of Suu Kyi asked without leaving time for an answer. “She is our leader.”

Such optimism is curbed, however, by questions about whether the army and the party it supports will play fair and allow further reform after the election. The NLD has accused the governing party of fabricating voter rosters and vote-buying. Fears remain of backlash from hard-line elements who might be tempted to sideline Thein Sein and other reform-minded leaders before their authority is consolidated. “We must be very careful in every step we make,” said Myo Yan Naung Thein, a formerly imprisoned political activist who last year founded the Bayda Institute, an NGO that promotes awareness about democratic systems of government. “We must not show any sign that we are a threat.” And though the president has pledged to pursue ceasefires and lasting peace, the state army continues campaigns against ethnic armies that exact devastating tolls: soldiers continue to fire on civilians, rape women and conscript children as porters in front-line fighting, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch in March.

If voted in, celebrated figures like Thinn and Suu Kyi also risk their reputations by joining a government that fails to provide basic public services, suffers from rampant corruption and has driven the national economy into the ground through mismanagement. Good intentions cannot turn around decades of neglect that have left most Burmese to survive on a few dollars a day. Asked by an audience member after her speech how she would resolve shortages of clean water and electricity, Thinn’s response that, if elected, she would raise the issue in parliament did not leave listeners as inspired as did the initial impact of her reputation and fresh face.

The 48 seats to be contested on Sunday are just a fraction of the parliament’s total of more than 650. “Ultimate power still rests with the army, so until we have the army solidly behind the process of democratization we cannot say that we have got to a point where there will be no danger of a U-turn,” Suu Kyi, whose view of the reform is being used by Western governments to judge whether sanctions should be dropped, told an audience at Ottawa’s Carleton University last month via video link. But that hasn’t stopped some NLD supporters from seeing the April 1 vote as a precursor to a much larger moment. The current cover of The People’s Age, a Burmese weekly newspaper, shows voters nervously standing at the edge of a cliff with a ballot box acting as a bridge. Lying on the other side of the divide is a sign reading “2015”—the year of the next general election.

[Published in March 29, 2012 edition of Maclean’s]