11/04/2010 11:35 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Burma's Tinder-Dry Politics -- What will be the Spark?

There are two big questions facing Burma in the next few weeks. Will civil war flare up after the military junta's sham election on November 7? And will Burma's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, be released when her sentence ends on November 13? Both questions go to the heart of the country's problems. The need for a political settlement that includes Burma's long suffering ethnic nationalities and the role of Aung San Suu Kyi in the country's politics.

Burma's ruling generals have engineered a constitution, parliament and electoral process that they hoped would provide a tiny fig leave of legitimacy over naked military rule. But many governments are already calling the election a sham, albeit in more diplomatic language. Sadly for the generals, the fig leaf has already fallen.

Under the new constitution all armed forces, including ethnic armies that have been at war with the regime, must come under the command of the Defense Services. The problem for the regime is that 10 ethnic armies comprising between 40 -- 60,000 men, refuse to give up their arms or come under their military opponents command. Something has to give. The regime either accepts the status quo, or goes to war to enforce its constitution. An attempted military 'solution' could have dire consequences for the already beleaguered ethnic civilian populations. According to exiled Burmese journalist and political analyst Min Zin, the Burma army has significant numbers of child soldiers, many of whom are demoralized and unreliable in battle. If the junta decides on a military solution, he suggests it will consist largely of aerial and artillery attacks, at great civilian cost. There is a real fear of a humanitarian crisis on top of the one that already exists. China and Thailand could see a surge of new refugees across their borders, unless both can apply preemptive pressure on the regime to refrain from a new onslaught.

Then there is Aung San Suu Kyi. The regime has attempted to isolate her from Burma's people by detaining her for 15 of the last 21 years. Yet she still remains a dangerous lightning rod of inspiration for a people desperate for change -- desperate and angry too. Angry not only from 50 years of dictatorship, but from the memory of the 2007 Saffron Revolution where peaceful protesting monks were beaten, tortured and killed by the regime. Angry also from the memory of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 that killed 140,000 people, while the regime stood by refusing help to a traumatized and devastated population.

Despite the junta's attempt to isolate Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Zin suggests she "remains the most important political and moral force in the country." Adding that "whenever she's been released, people rally behind her for genuine political change. And since many ethnic groups support her, she could play a critical role in reconciling Burma."

In 2003 when Aung San Suu Kyi was free to tour the country, tens of thousands would travel long distances to remote towns to see her speak. The junta, realizing her popularity had not waned and fearing the size of the support she was attracting, stepped in. Regime-organized thugs blocked her motorcade, killed a hundred of her supporters and she was sent to Insein prison. The generals must fear that she still has the power to bring huge numbers of people onto the streets -- the power to expose their lack of legitimacy.

Over the next few weeks three potent political forces in Burma come into sharp focus: the military, the ethnic armies and Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the floods and the shedding of blood, Burma's politics is as dry as tinder, and few really know what the spark of real change will be.