For nearly two decades, the house at 54 University Avenue in Yangon, Myanmar, a crumbling old Victorian home, appeared more like a fortress than a residence.
Along the road leading to Aung San Suu Kyi's family home, groups of soldiers and military intelligence men, armed with radios and machine guns, blocked its entrance, which was so far from the actual house that no one on the road could see inside.
Citizens foolish enough to travel to the roadblock were often detained and roughly interrogated. Foreigners (including myself) who wandered towards the residence, seeking any glimpse of the famous opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate, were turned away. Suu Kyi herself stayed inside. Except for a few brief periods of release from her long house arrest, her main contact with the outside world was through her radio and a maid who came and went. Other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won a free election in 1990 but was never allowed to take office, could not visit, if they themselves were not in jail.
Today, the situation could hardly be more different. The house is open and NLD members, academics, foreign journalists, diplomats and governmental advisers come and go for meetings with Suu Kyi when she is not travelling around the country holding rallies, as she has been doing for much of the past six months. Foreign tour groups often stop by to take pictures of the residence, while state security men stand aside. Suu Kyi has also now ventured abroad for the first time in decades, visiting the Nobel Institute in Oslo last weekend as part of a broader European tour.
The changes at University Avenue are symbolic of the dramatic shifts that have occurred over the past two years in Myanmar, which outside of North Korea was probably the most repressive and isolated country in the world, ruled for five decades by a military regime. Under the watchful eye of a new president, Thein Sein, Myanmar's military officially ended its rule, handing power to a civilian parliament. Thein Sein then inaugurated rapid reforms: he freed many of the country's political prisoners, launched efforts to achieve permanent peace with many insurgent armies, began opening up the media and the economy, and publicly called for exiles to return and rebuild the country, a tacit admission that years of military rule had impoverished what was once a promising economy. In April, Suu Kyi's party was allowed to compete in by-elections for a handful of parliamentary seats, for the first time since 1990. The party dominated the voting, winning 44 out of 46 seats. Suu Kyi herself took one seat, and now sits in parliament, a shocking development given that only two years ago she was locked in her home.
In response to this surprising shift, most western nations are re-engaging with the country. The US, European Union, Australia and Japan have already dropped some economic sanctions, and many companies are laying plans to invest heavily in Myanmar. Coca-Cola, General Electric and other big multinationals have already launched exploratory plans to get into Myanmar. In April, David Cameron, the British prime minister, became the first major western leader to visit the country in two decades. And yet, the pace of reform after so many years of repression, and the absence of any public explanation for why the military now decided to cede power, has left some citizens, and outside observers, both wary and thrilled.