Foreign Policy: Burma's Gorbachev

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Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (R) gives a speech to supporters of her National League for Democracy in Yangon, on Jan. 17, 2012. President Thein Sein, a former military officer who was elected in widely considered fraudulent elections, may be a Gorbachev like reformist. i

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (R) gives a speech to supporters of her National League for Democracy in Yangon, on Jan. 17, 2012. President Thein Sein, a former military officer who was elected in widely considered fraudulent elections, may be a Gorbachev like reformist. AFP Photo/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP Photo/AFP/Getty Images
Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (R) gives a speech to supporters of her National League for Democracy in Yangon, on Jan. 17, 2012. President Thein Sein, a former military officer who was elected in widely considered fraudulent elections, may be a Gorbachev like reformist.

Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (R) gives a speech to supporters of her National League for Democracy in Yangon, on Jan. 17, 2012. President Thein Sein, a former military officer who was elected in widely considered fraudulent elections, may be a Gorbachev like reformist.

AFP Photo/AFP/Getty Images

Aung Zaw is founding editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, based in Thailand.

One sweltering day in August of last year, Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived for the first time in the capital of her country. The city of Naypyidaw, inaugurated six years ago by Burma's mercurial military rulers, is a supremely artificial creation, a place of vacant boulevards and echoing plazas built in the foothills some 200 miles away from the old capital of Rangoon. Rangoon is the city that Aung San Suu Kyi calls home, and it is there that she had spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest.

She had come to Naypyidaw to meet the man who had orchestrated her release from detention 10 months earlier. Burmese President Thein Sein, like most of the men who have ruled the country since World War II, spent almost his entire adult life as an army officer. Then, in 2010, he took off his uniform, assumed the leadership of the ruling political party, and led it to victory in an election denounced by most international observers as a sham. He then took office as the head of the first ostensibly civilian government in Burma (also known as Myanmar) in 49 years and announced that he was preparing to lead the country toward democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi was understandably cautious as she went into her meeting with the president. She and her fellow activists have watched Burma's leaders break promises for decades. Was this one really any different?

To her surprise, the president welcomed her warmly, lavishing praise upon her father Aung San, a hero of Burma's anti-colonial struggle in the 1940s. Two decades ago, wary of the late Aung San's continuing star power (and that of his daughter, who entered politics after the 1988 uprising), the military junta had erased his image from the national currency. Now, in demonstrative contrast, the president insisted that he and Aung San Suu Kyi pose for an official photo beneath a portrait of her father. Later that evening Thein Sein's wife welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi to a "family dinner" in the presidential palace. She greeted Burma's leading dissident with a warm embrace.

In the weeks that followed, the opposition leader told her colleagues that it was time to take the president's promises of reform for real. She moved to obtain official registration for her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and stated that she wanted to see it participate in parliamentary by-elections to be held on April 1 of this year. Even if the NLD wins every seat at stake, it would still fall short of anything like a legislative majority. Victory, though, could ensure an important opposition voice in the hitherto docile body. On Jan. 10, after weeks of uncertainty, she finally announced that she will run for a seat in the parliament.

Allowing the NLD to participate is merely the latest in a series of dramatic moves made by the president. Since Thein Sein took power in March 2010, he has freed hundreds of political prisoners, initiated discussions about legalizing trade unions, and loosened censorship. Over the past year the new Burmese government has taken more steps toward political reform than the previous military regime took in over two decades.

Yet none of this can disguise the fact that Burma is still a country under authoritarian rule, and that means its further progress depends to a critical extent on the motives and capabilities of the man who holds its highest office. Many observers wonder whether Thein Sein is committed to meaningful progress or is simply serving as the public face of the old junta in its quest to retain power under a quasi-civilian government. Once a pillar of the old regime, he was one of its highest-ranking generals when in 2007 he assumed the office of prime minister, a post that he retained throughout the government's crackdown on pro-democracy protests that year.

There are also questions about the extent to which Thein Sein is truly in control. Several leaders of the military regime still hold positions in his government. (In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that the generals still wield enormous power despite the veneer of democracy provided by the elections. "I am concerned about how much support there is in the military for changes," she said. "In the end that's the most important factor, how far the military are prepared to cooperate with reform principles.") Although the government denies it, former junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, a master political chess player, continues to exercise considerable influence behind the scenes, say some experts.

The culture of secrecy surrounding Burma's military rulers makes it especially difficult to gauge just how far they will allow the current opening to go. But Thein Sein's biography provides some intriguing clues. The son of peasants from the Irrawaddy Delta, he graduated from the country's elite military academy in 1968. As a young officer in the 1970s, he was sent to the front lines of the Burmese military campaign against the Chinese-backed communist insurgency. Retired Lt. Gen. Chit Swe, under whom Thein Sein served in the 1980s, describes the president as someone who rarely shows his emotions, is notably devoid of arrogance, and is usually willing to listen to differing opinions.

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