The landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, in the by-elections held in Myanmar has confirmed what was already widely known: the iconic Nobel laureate remains as popular with the people of her country since the time she last contested elections, in 1990. Then, the military junta had robbed her of victory, putting her under house arrest for nearly all of the next two decades. This time, she will take her place in parliament as a member of the opposition, but her role is much bigger than that. Her studied decision to contest was crucial for the credibility of the reforms that have been set in motion under President Thein Sein. A former military man, the President was handpicked by the junta to lead the nominally civilian dispensation that would take its place after the 2010 elections. Since then, he has surprised sceptics, critics and even his military backers by his enthusiasm for bringing political change. The NLD boycotted the 2010 election as the junta had devised new rules to keep Ms Suu Kyi from contesting. But with the Thein Sein government taking measured but definite steps towards reform, she signalled a cautious willingness to participate in the process. The emphatic vote for the NLD is also an endorsement of her decision, and reflects the people's will that she play a role in the ongoing transition. Along with 16 members of a breakaway faction of her party who were elected in 2010 along with a clutch of representatives from the ethnic minorities, the NLD's robust presence in Parliament means that for the first time in half a century, the country has an elected opposition.
For sure, Myanmar is still far away from democracy. The parliament is still dominated by the military and its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. The ruling Defence Council still retains the power to dissolve parliament, to suspend the constitution at will, and to reimpose martial law. But military members of parliament have several times voted with the opposition. Clearly, the Myanmar military realises that the country needs to change, and that such change has to begin with it. There will be the expectation, both among her supporters at home and internationally, that in her new role, Ms Suu Kyi can hasten this change, but it would be unreasonable to expect miracles. As in Pakistan, there will always remain fears of a military backlash. The world can play a more constructive role by easing sanctions on the country. That in turn would speed the pace of democratic reforms. India, which had sidelined Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD in its eagerness to engage with the junta, now has the task of rebuilding relations with Myanmar's democratic forces.