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YANGON: During the 27 years that Nyan Win fought for democracy beside Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the low point came when he was arrested by the ruling military junta and locked in a bare army barracks for three years. The fight was not easy, he says, but his leader never seemed to be discouraged.

“She’s very strong,” Nyan Win, a 72-year-old lawyer, said with a broad smile.

Friday marked a historic moment for Win and other pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, as Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) clinched a victory in last Sunday’s general elections with enough seats in parliament to form a government and elect a president.

The milestone came on a hot Yangon day at noon, but there was no celebrating, no fireworks, no dancing in the streets as there had been earlier in the week. The NLD headquarters was quiet, with the newly elected candidates stopping by to do their paperwork. Only the T-shirt seller on the sidewalk was doing brisk business in Suu Kyi memorabilia — remarkable, considering that her photo was banned from public display five years ago.

Suu Kyi, 70, the revered leader known here simply as “the Lady”, had come to give a short speech to her supporters, asking them not to gloat over their landslide victory. Five years after the country’s generals launched a process of democratic reform, the joy of victory is tinged with fear.

“Everything in our country is still under the generals’ control,” said Aung Thein, 82, an NLD member and the party’s internal auditor. “Will they let her form a government or not? That is the question.”

The lady by the lake

The generals have gone back on their word before. In 1990, two years after a student uprising and brutal military crackdown launched Suu Kyi into politics, her pro-democracy party won 80 per cent of the seats in parliament. The military, in power since a 1962 coup, simply ignored the results.

Nyan Win was in prison at the time of the 1990 elections, and Suu Kyi, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, was under house arrest. She would spend 15 of the next 20 years confined to her lakeside house with the leaky roof on University Avenue — the lady by the lake.

In some ways, Suu Kyi was the daughter of Myanmar. Her father, Aung San, helped secure the country’s independence from Britain and was assassinated in 1947, when she was two years old.

She was an Oxford-educated mother of two and wife of a British academic in 1988, when she returned home after her mother had a stroke. She quickly became swept up in the pro-democracy uprising at the time. The movement was eventually crushed by the military, with hundreds of protesters shot in the streets and its leaders imprisoned.

She gave her first major speech in August 1988, before a crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered in front of the city’s golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the ancient heart of Yangon, and electrified the crowd with her call for unity and democracy.

“At that time she was too young to become a great leader,” Aung Thein said. “We loved her and believed in her because she is the daughter of Aung San. We didn’t know anything about her knowledge and her ability.”

A platform had been built for the speakers at the event, he recalled: “Somebody had to pick her up and put her on stage. She was too young and too thin.”

Over time, Suu Kyi would become one of the world’s most famous dissidents, heaped with accolades and awards in absentia. But there was private pain, too, that played out in public. She was separated for years from her husband, Michael Aris, and two sons, who remained in Britain.

In the late 1990s, Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The generals said that Suu Kyi could travel to be with him, but she feared that she would never be let back into the country. They never saw each other again; he died in 1999.

“As a mother … the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons,” she once said. “I was always aware of the fact that others had sacrificed more than me.”

Suu Kyi also became the darling of Myanmar’s supporters in Washington, who launched a push for re-engagement with the country in 2011, after the generals ostensibly gave way to a quasi-civilian government. And she remained so even as Washington grew more sceptical about the generals’ commitments to reform and more concerned about their human rights abuses.

Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama would eventually travel to meet Suu Kyi, and she met with Obama in the Oval Office in 2012. The two sides have their differences — Suu Kyi said that she does not want to be thought of as a puppet of the West, and she exasperates US officials with her occasionally imperious manner. But she continues to command respect.

“If she can manage to hold together a democratic movement … with everything falling around her, and her people being imprisoned and held on house arrest for 15 years — that’s a remarkable achievement,” said Republican leader Joseph Crowley. “People would be foolish to underestimate her.”

Not a moment to waste

For most of her long detention, Suu Kyi wrote in her book Letters from Burma, she kept to a strict schedule. She rose at 4:15am and meditated, worked on her French and Japanese skills, and played Bach on the piano. She had little contact with the outside world. When she was finally released from custody in 2010, she was surprised to see so many people on mobile phones. Her country had moved on without her.

On Monday, after Sunday’s historic polls, she met at her house with her longtime advisers, many of whom had been with her since 1988. They told her that returns were showing a landslide NLD win and that they were waiting to hear from the government, according to Nyan Win.

No, she told them sharply — we are the winners, so we must make the first move.

She quickly wrote notes to the country’s president, top general and speaker of the parliament asking them to meet to discuss the transfer of power and the process of “national reconciliation”. It had been 27 years. There was not one more moment to waste.

“There is so much that is beautiful and so much that is wrong in my country,” she once wrote. “How simple it would be if a mere turn of light could make everything that was ugly beautiful.”

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2015