Historic vote is likely to ripple around the world
Staff Reporter in Yangon
While the images of Aung San Suu Kyi staring out of the posters, shirts and coffee mugs sold on Yangon's streets seem to get ever-younger, the same cannot be said for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate herself.
Drawn and wan, Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader, emerged on Friday from a week's bed-rest to urge her fellow citizens to vote in today's historic parliamentary by-elections.
She warned of intimidation and on-going persecution, yet still insisted the election would bring its own rewards. The act of voting and nationwide political involvement was 'the greatest triumph' after years of repression under the jackboot, she insisted.
For many of her supporters, her frail appearance highlighted their worst fears - either through age, or by the design of the military generals who still lurk in the background of Myanmar's young democracy, Suu Kyi will find herself marginalised.
Beyond that, the dramatic social, political and economic reforms offered by President Thein Sein, himself a former general in the old junta, will count for little as well.
U Myint Aung, a Yangon book-keeper, said as he walked past Suu Kyi's walled villa, hoping in vain for a glimpse of her: 'I want so much to believe in everything that is going on.
'But when you're Burmese, you realise even hope is dangerous. I'm 53 now, and getting too old to see my hopes dashed once again.'
Yet for all the historical baggage - Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) is competing in a poll for the first time after 22 years of persecution - the poll is ultimately about the future.
With just 45 seats up for grabs in a 440-seat lower house, the NLD is not about to take power from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. But the primarily rural voters will still be able to make ripples felt around the world by how they cast their votes.
Today's poll could play a key role in eroding Western-led sanctions. That could, in turn, further deepen regional and international engagement to help Thein Sein put commercial flesh on the bones of his reforms.
Lifting sanctions is one thing: creating a legal, banking and commercial framework in one of Southeast Asia's poorest and most isolated economies is potentially an even greater challenge.
Yangon-based diplomats said European Union sanctions, aside from those involving arms, could be lifted before the end of this month.
That will put further pressure on Washington to accelerate the withdrawal of its own complex web of sanctions.
Derek Mitchell, the US special envoy to Myanmar, recently acknowledged that while fair elections were just part of the sanctions puzzle, trends were moving favourably.
'But we can see momentum moving in the right direction, so we will respond after the elections in appropriate fashion if we believe that they are held freely, fairly and transparently,' he said.
Asian envoys in Yangon stress that for all the focus on lifting sanctions, greater foreign engagement will be vital for implementing Asean's plans to fully free up the movement of goods and people across Southeast Asia by 2015. That is when the Asean free trade area will be extended in full to newer members Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
One veteran Asean diplomat said: 'It might only be 45 seats on Sunday but, when you add it all up, the stakes could not be higher. All our hopes are riding on Thein Sein and Suu Kyi to keep pressing on.'
The stakes, of course, are highest for those two individuals. On the one side, Suu Kyi is pushing for deeper change, including constitutional changes to remove the military's hold over the civilian leadership. She wants real rule of law, something she is keen to dangle over hungry foreign investors, but must avoid being co-opted and silenced as a minority back-bencher.
For Thein Sein, releasing hundreds of political prisoners and clearing a path for Suu Kyi to come into the system was a gamble he hopes will pay a dividend in a lifting of sanctions.
That will help him keep darker forces at bay within the military, including possibly the former junta chief Than Shwe, who is still consulted but rarely active. Another well-connected Asian diplomat said: 'It will bring a result not just for his government in terms of the military, but the people as well.'
Officials close to the leadership talk of the importance of momentum, of getting reforms to such a point where they could be reversed through any internal crackdown, or worse.
One official said: 'That's just not thinking within government, but within reformist elements of the military. We have a real appetite for change, that should not be under-estimated. We know we can't go back.'
Thein Sein can seem as faceless as Suu Kyi is iconic, but his marked lack of charisma is an advantage as he tries to win trust within his own system, and internationally.
'What he does have is sincerity. He is clearly bent on doing things for his own country, not himself, and that is vital at this point,' the official said.
As prime minister under the old junta, he was in power during some of his nation's darkest moments - including the bloody suppression of monk-led protests in 2007 and the mishandling of the response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 - events which insiders say proved an internal turning point.
On Friday, Suu Kyi once again gave Thein Sein plenty of respect. She spoke of the trust she had in him, despite his past.
'But I've never been certain how much support there is behind him, particularly from the military,' she said, adding repeatedly that she still remained ultimately optimistic about Myanmar's future.
Millions inside the country, and beyond, are hoping she is right.