Burma’s Tightrope

Burma's mysterious president insists that he wants democracy. But can he deliver?


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.

When Burma was rocked by nationwide protests in 1988, Thein Sein commanded an elite battalion stationed in the rural areas of the country’s northwest. On one occasion, Thein Sein’s unit captured pro-democracy activists fleeing toward the Indian border. In contrast with the bloody crackdown being orchestrated by his colleagues in Rangoon, he either freed the activists or handed them over to local authorities.

Ex-army officer Ko Ko Hlaing, who once served under Thein Sein, is now one of the president’s chief advisors: "He’s polite and likes to keep a low profile," says Ko Ko Hlaing. "He’s not after personal popularity. He’s a bit media-shy and not really suited for the life of a populist politician. But his honesty and sincerity could attract public sympathy."

This assessment is echoed by others who know the man, yet the president is also someone who thrived in the vicious internal intrigues that characterized life at the top of Burma’s harsh military regime. In 1991 he received a senior post in the Defense Ministry that placed him in direct proximity to the country’s top military leaders, including, most importantly, Than Shwe. In 2004, when Than Shwe purged the powerful intelligence chief who was one of his main rivals for power, Thein Sein was the main beneficiary, rising to the fourth-most powerful position in the junta. When the prime minister died from leukemia in 2007, the all-powerful Than Shwe named Thein Sein to fill the vacancy.

Even now, however, Thein Sein manages to demonstrate a degree of sensitivity that nearly all his fellow generals lack. It’s a trait that seems at odds with his position as one of the leaders of the same ruthless regime that gunned down unarmed monks and demonstrators during the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

For example, when Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008 and Than Shwe’s government blocked significant amounts of foreign aid to the area, Thein Sein was the first top general to travel to the delta and meet the victims. Meanwhile, despite the heavy death toll from the cyclone and mounting international criticism about Burmese government relief efforts, the regime pushed through a constitutional referendum in the immediate aftermath of the devastating storm.

The 2008 Constitution, drafted by the military in a process overseen by Thein Sein, was approved in a sham referendum. The announcement of the results then kicked off a long period of speculation over who would lead Burma once a general election was held.

Larry Dinger, head of the U.S. mission in Rangoon, sent a cable to Washington (later published by WikiLeaks) that offered a concise assessment of the situation at the time. "The most senior generals are looking for an escape strategy," he wrote. "The current senior generals are getting old … [they] undoubtedly want assurances that, if they voluntarily step aside, they and their families will retain their assets and will not be prosecuted."

During this time of uncertainty, Thein Sein emerged as the international face of the Burmese regime, attending both regional and international summits. In 2009, when he traveled to the U.N. General Assembly in New York to defend the junta’s policies, diplomats characterized him as quiet but persuasive. These were qualities that would serve him well as the aging Than Shwe began casting about for a successor.

Thein Sein’s main rivals for the job were both powerful confidants of the outgoing junta leader, but they were also burdened by allegations of corruption. In the end, Than Shwe opted for Thein Sein, a man with international experience who was personally untainted by dubious business dealings or human rights abuses. Perhaps even more importantly, Thein Sein had no internal power base that posed a threat to the dictator’s personal or financial security.

Yet the ambiguities about his role persist. Crucially, it remains unclear just how much authority Thein Sein really has in the new government. Insiders say that Than Shwe continues to wield great influence over major decisions. They say that a hard-line faction continues to hobble the president and resist reforms.

In any event, the ultimate authority on anything related to national security (which in Burma means almost everything) rests with the 11-member National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). In Thein Sein’s defense, his aides say that the president continues to argue for the reform process in NDSC meetings and has made the final decision on many important issues.

If the meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi was the last act that convinced many that Thein Sein was serious about at least some degree of reform, then his September decision to suspend work on the China-funded Myitsone Dam project was what helped dispel the notion that he was weak and indecisive.

The decision was a slap in the face to China, Burma’s giant neighbor and traditional ally that for years had shielded the Burmese regime from U.N. Security Council censure debates and international condemnation. But Thein Sein was rewarded for his audacity. The move brought him domestic accolades, served as a signal to the West that Burma wanted to balance out its relationship with China, and significantly increased the momentum for his reforms.

"He might look gentle, but he’s a man of strong will," Ko Ko Hlaing told me. "Once he’s made a decision, he sticks with it."

Some critics, however, noted that many other Chinese-funded and controlled mega-projects, including other Irrawaddy River dam projects, as well as a gas pipeline and railway line to China’s Yunnan province, remained untouched. There are also skeptics who continue to argue that all the steps Thein Sein and his government have taken have been a facade aimed at gaining the chairmanship of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) for 2014. They say that Burma’s rulers are also keen on persuading Western countries to lift sanctions in order to get international investment flowing into domestic businesses controlled by the ex-junta leaders and their cronies.

In November, Thein Sein succeeded in convincing ASEAN to grant Burma its 2014 chair, and on the heels of that decision U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would become the first top U.S. diplomat to visit Burma in over 50 years. But though her visit gave another injection of legitimacy to the new government, she held the line and said that sanctions would not be lifted until further reforms were made. The message was repeated by British Foreign Secretary William Hague during his visit in early January.

Yet there are also at least two cases where there is good reason to doubt the depth of the new government’s commitment to reform.

First, there is the problem of the government’s continuing conflict with ethnic minority groups. Thein Sein has launched an effort to enter into cease-fire agreements with some of them, and in some cases he has succeeded. The army, however, has openly defied his public call to cease its attacks in the northern state of Kachin. The surge in fighting there, including widespread report of abuses by the army, has created some 30,000 refugees in the area. When asked recently about the discrepancy, Ko Ko Hlaing noted only that the army’s chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is a member of the NDSC. He added, "Our country is no longer an autocratic state as before." To those versed in the Burmese art of circumlocution, these comments implied that Thein Sein has no personal power to tell the Burmese military to refrain from anything. (On Jan. 12, the government announced a historic ceasefire agreement with another rebel group, the Karen National Union. But fighting with the Kachin continues.)

Then there is the matter of political prisoners. For the past few months Thein Sein and other senior government officers had been dropping hints that the rest of Burma’s political prisoners would soon be set free, with Jan. 4 (Independence Day) as the date most often mentioned. But on Jan. 2, the president signed an insulting amnesty order that freed fewer than 40 political prisoners and left many languishing in jail. That prompted Aung San Suu Kyi to issue another warning about dangers to the reform process.

There are two possible explanations for these failures to follow through, and neither is good for the image that Thein Sein has been trying to cultivate. One possibility is that he genuinely wants the political prisoners to be released but has no power to make that happen. The other is that he is a willing participant in an effort by the military to present a facade of liberalization in the hopes of gaining concessions from the West.

In any event, Thein Sein remains an enigma. He is a man who has demonstrated some admirable qualities while acting as one of the leaders of a brutally immoral regime. He is also a man who has spent his adult life obeying the military’s chain of command in an authoritarian junta and who now purports to head up a civilian government on the path toward democracy. Finally, he is the man who most believe represents the Burmese people’s best hope for internal government reform, even while he remains closely connected with those who wish to remain in absolute power.

Under these circumstances, it is understandable that most Burmese are likely to insist that they will gauge the depth of Thein Sein’s reforms by the actions of his government rather than simply taking him at his word.

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