The vote may be won, but Suu Kyi's battle lies ahead
It is never easy to persuade those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change,' Aung San Suu Kyi once remarked. But the leader of Burma's main pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), never wavered in her belief that it was possible. Now it may actually be happening.
In last Sunday's by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 44 seats at stake. The outcome was so encouraging that NLD official Myo Win was quoted as saying: 'The army has changed and is now more lenient. So there is more of a possibility that Aung San Suu Kyi can become president in 2015.'
Suu Kyi is finally free after 22 years of political repression, most of them spent under house arrest. It's hard to believe that she may be peacefully elected president of Burma in three years' time, when a general election is due - but it was also hard to believe that Nelson Mandela would be elected president of South Africa only four years after he was freed.
From the army's point of view, the by-elections, held to replace regime supporters who gave up their seats upon being appointed to the new government, seemed an ideal way to start the opening-up process. Even if the NLD did well, it would not shake the regime's majority in parliament. But the NLD may have done too well.
The pro-democracy party's nearly clean sweep will remind many generals of the 1990 elections. Having drowned a non-violent protest movement in blood in 1988, the army held a general election in 1990, confident it could guarantee the right outcome. It was wrong: the NLD won 80per cent of the seats. The military only preserved its rule by ignoring the results and jailing the opposition leaders.
Now we have a similar election outcome. It will already have occurred to both the soldiers and to Suu Kyi that if the NLD had not boycotted the elections in 2010, it would have won them. And it virtually guarantees that the NLD will become the government in 2015, if those elections are held.
The Burmese army's choice is now stark: it must either accept that outcome or halt the whole democratisation process. President Thein Sein seems committed to the process, but some senior generals will certainly prefer the latter option.
The coming year will be a tricky one, and it could end in disaster if Suu Kyi overplays her hand. However, the past 22 years have taught her patience, and she understands that Thein Sein needs her help in staving off the pressure from the more hawkish generals.
The rest of the world can also help him, by ending sanctions and allowing investment to flow into the crippled economy. And with luck, Burma will be a democracy three years from now.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist