Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party cheer holding a portrait of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they watch increasing votes on a screen at the roof of the NLD office in Yangon. Myanmar voted on Sunday in its third election in half a century. REUTERS/Staff
Whenever Aung San Suu Kyi's followers have been allowed to show their support for her, she has swept the polls in Myanmar. Her party's claims that it has won 43 out of the 44 parliamentary seats that were holding by-elections are, therefore, quite credible. Ms Suu Kyi has called the results the possible start of a "new era" in Myanmar politics. Having had that hope crushed before, she is sensible to warn her supporters that this is only a first step. That, if anything, this is the easiest leg in a long journey towards the establishment of a civilian and representative government in Myanmar. There should be no doubt that political power still lies overwhelmingly with the Myanmarese ruling junta. Which is why Ms Suu Kyi has gone out of her way to praise the surprising decision of the present ruling generalissimo, Thien Sien, to allow the elections. The general has shown a remarkable desire to open the door to reform in Myanmar, publicly speaking of the country's need to move to democracy.
There are signs Ms Suu Kyi and the military have an understanding by which Myanmar will experience a lengthy political transition, especially on the crucial issue of civilian control over the military. Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's most famous military politician, has been allowed to live under house arrest and avoided prison or worse because the generals saw her as the only democrat who combined both widespread support, international legitimacy and a sense of realism about the power equation in Myanmar. But the Suu Kyi-military relationship is perhaps the most stable equation in the change that is taking place in Myanmar today. Two other equations are more problematic - and both which could prove fatal to the reform process. First are the relations between the dominant Burmans and the northern ethnic groups. Many of the latter have so far stayed out of the election process. Ms Suu Kyi has to bring them into the fold. A nascent democracy cannot survive in a country where one half is in some state of secession or insurgency. Second is the attitude of China, Myanmar's most important economic partner and the neighbour with the greatest political clout within the country. No great votary of democracy, China is also wary of the growing western presence in Myanmar.
India's role should be, first and foremost, to find out what the entire gamut of Myanmarese groups would like New Delhi to do. It can earn points by advocating the measured lifting of sanctions against the country. But it needs to calibrate its policy to what it feels the broader population itself would like. What is impressive about what is happening in its easternmost neighbour is that it is taking place because of the internal deliberations among the Myanmarese. And that is what India should be supportive of, even if that may require a quieter role than the historic nature of developments may seem to demand.