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Burma: Now for the hard part

RANGOON -- The story here in Burma right now is all about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. The polls just closed a few hours ago, but the NLD is already claiming a landslide victory -- making this a potentially transformative moment for the long-suffering country. So it's quite understandable that most journalists (including me) have been focusing on the Lady and her team.

Yet it is vitally important to keep the big picture in sight. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues know all too well, they are about to enter a parliament that has been carefully designed to prevent people like them from gaining much influence. According to the 2008 constitution that provided the ground rules for Burma's last general election two years ago, a full quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the armed forces. But an even larger number of seats are held by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), created by the military regime in 1993 as a counterweight to the pro-democracy movement. If Aung San Suu Kyi and her friends really want to amend the present constitution before the next election rolls around in 2015, as they have said they plan to do, they will have to find allies within these two groups.

Opinions about the current state of the USDP are divided. The optimists say that many of its members realize that the jig is up, and that they must essentially reform or die. In this reading, the onset of real political competition will provide an incentive for the party's more pragmatic members to seek deals with the vastly more popular NLD. Speculating about when the first pro-regime MPs will defect to the NLD has become something of a political parlor game in Rangoon these days.

The skeptics don't buy it. In their view, the pro-government party actually hasn't changed all that much, and its members have little reason to switch sides, since they know that voters aren't necessarily prepared to reward opportunistic conversions to the democratic cause when there are so many genuine democrats around already. USDP parliamentarians, in short, know which side their bread is buttered on. They will stick with the government precisely in order to preserve the perks that come from proximity to the generals and ex-generals who continue to hold all the key positions in the government bureaucracy and the economy.

While I'm inclined to side with the optimists, my own encounters with the USDP haven't exactly been encouraging. Having obtained an interview with U Htay Oo, the USDP's general secretary, my interpreter and I turned up at the party's HQ in downtown Rangoon. It's a high-rise building in a mostly low-rise city, and its huge marble lobby and echoing corridors are built to convey an imposing sense of proximity to power. We were ushered into a top-floor meeting room with dark wood paneling and heavy leather armchairs -- all of it a far cry from the NLD's head office (a ramshackle house with concrete floors). After welcoming us, a smiling U Htay Oo launched into a 40-minute monologue that smacked of the opening address to a government delegation rather than the start of an interview. The general secretary of the USDP is clearly a man accustomed to doing the talking.

Once I finally had a chance to ask my questions, U Htay Oo took care to express general support for President Thein Sein's cautious reform course while remaining decidedly vague about what this means in practice. He told me that the USDP's parliamentarians are keen to show that they have the best interests of the voters at heart. But when I asked him to name an issue on which the party's MPs have chosen to take the government to task, he demurred. And when it came to the all-important issue of constitutional reform, he showed little indication that the USDP might be prepared for a deal: "The constitution has been in effect for only one year... We need to implement it for a while." None of this seems to bode especially well for the prospects of collaboration with the NLD.

For all this, though, his was still a relatively polished performance. He was careful to avoid all too harsh words for the pro-democracy movement, obviously aware that vilifying the NLD would blight the reformist president's charm offensive to persuade Western countries to lift their long-standing sanctions against Burma. In that respect, my encounter with Lae Lae Aye, a young USDP functionary campaigning for a parliamentary seat in Rangoon, was illuminating. The government knows what's best for people, she told me; the job of ordinary citizens is to obey the laws that it makes. When I asked her about her rivals in the NLD, her distaste was palpable: "There are many opposition people who are rude." But surely, I said, it was their right as citizens to express their own views? "Clever children obey their parent's rules," she explains. "But the child who isn't clever doesn't listen to his parents. And then, as a result, he doesn't like his parents, either." (Guess which role the NLD played in this metaphor.) USDP strategy guidelines posted on the wall of her campaign headquarters included the following point: "Reduce and ultimately eliminate the area of the opposition parties."

It's easy to mock such views. Yet they provide an insight into the mindset of the people who have ruled this country since 1962, and who still hold firm control over its government, the economy, and the education system. Easing them out, if it happens at all, will be a slow and arduous task entailing plenty of messy and unsatisfying compromises. Today's election is merely the first.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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