The Lady and the General

Meet the political odd couple driving democratic reform in Burma.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

The most unlikely of political partners are driving the astonishing democratic transition in Burma. One of them is no surprise: Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspirational global icon who for recent generations has defined nonviolent struggle against oppression. The other, President Thein Sein, is an unassuming former general who rose to the senior ranks of the very military junta seen as responsible for Burma’s decades of misery, but then had the courage to steer the country in a new direction. Neither sought this unusual pairing, but together they represent the most hopeful turn for Burma in half a century.

Burma before World War II served as one of the rice bowls of Asia, and its people aspired to the region’s best standards of health, education, and prosperity. But the country’s darker post-colonial legacies included bitter ethnic divides and an unfortunate role in the center of the neighborhood’s Cold War intrigue, as the Soviet Union, China, and the United States each vied for strategic position and ideological cohorts. Following a 1962 coup, the military justified the decades of misrule to come by the need to hold the country together with whatever force necessary and resist any form of foreign domination — real or imagined. The generals drove the country to ruin.

By 2009, there were few overt signs of any real change, but President Obama launched a tentative, exploratory effort to woo Burma out of its isolation. On my first visit, in early 2010, I met both Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, then the prime minister as well as No. 4 in the ruling junta. The contrast between the two could not have been greater. I was permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon at an old Russian-built hotel, a relic of Burma’s Cold War ambivalence. She was delivered to the hotel from her solitary house arrest, and we talked for three hours about her hopes for a new Burma. She was predictably inspiring, reflecting a steely determination and optimism that contrasted sharply with the stark setting, and displayed a thorough grasp of international developments that belied her nearly two decades in isolation under house arrest. She described in detail her daily ritual of listening to the BBC World Service and Voice of America as a kind of preparation for the role she could then barely imagine — but today is playing. The regime cropped her out of a photo of my visit published in the state-run newspaper.

I met Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the remote new capital where the generals had abruptly sequestered themselves a few years earlier. Largely unresponsive to our offer for a meaningful dialogue, he and his fellow generals showed no sign of willingness to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi or implement any serious reforms. Thein Sein seemed an unlikely strongman, reserved and mild-mannered in his heavily starched olive-green uniform. But in that first meeting, with his careful military cadence and cautious manner, he gave no indication of any of the ideas of reform that have come to animate his time as president.

This past September, just three short years later, Aung San Suu Kyi stepped off a plane for her first visit to the United States in four decades, this time as a freely elected member of Burma’s new parliament. She came both for a victory lap — she was to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, among many other honors — and to do the serious work of encouraging renewed Burmese links to and support from the international community. During her visit, Thein Sein arrived in the United States carrying a similar message, which he would deliver in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, the first by a Burmese head of state in decades, and in an official meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The people and government of Burma have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reform process," he said. While in New York, he met privately with Aung San Suu Kyi, as they had several times previously in Burma. Their partnership is an unlikely one, but the symbolism of their encounter in New York was a powerful indication of the distance they, and their country, had covered.

Their relationship began with a dinner in the spring of 2011 prepared by Thein Sein’s wife in the couple’s modest home and presented under a painting of Aung San, Burma’s revered independence leader and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Warily, tentatively, the two compared shared hopes for the country’s rebirth. That first meeting set the stage for the breathtaking changes in Burma following the retirement in 2011 of the junta’s geriatric strongman, Than Shwe. Thein Sein’s government has since released hundreds of political prisoners; eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, and movement; established cease-fires with most insurgent ethnic groups; and launched a wobbly electoral process that eventually allowed Aung San Suu Kyi’s once-banned opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to take legislative seats, 22 years after the junta ignored the party’s stunning national election victory.

Many explanations have been offered for Burma’s sudden opening — from geopolitics to unrelenting global pressure — but I believe the personal experiences of these two remarkable individuals have much to do with it. The U.S. government and key congressional allies stood resolutely with Aung San Suu Kyi and other Burmese freedom fighters through the darkest days of their struggle, and she knew we could be counted on to help Burma when the regime finally relented.

Thein Sein arrived at the need to overturn the old order by a very different path. His role as prime minister and designated face to the outside world brought him to regional capitals that decades earlier appeared as poor cousins to cosmopolitan Rangoon but now were thriving hubs of modernity. Burma’s failure must have been manifest, and its status as a pariah state, increasingly an embarrassment for many countries in Southeast Asia, would have been painful to defend.

Sustaining reform’s momentum will be difficult. Much will depend on getting others to follow the courageous example of Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein in setting aside bitter enmities and deep distrust for the common good. Their shared stake in a better future led both leaders to take off a uniform — she the mantle of international sainthood and he the insignia of the military institution that brought him to absolute power. Having done so, they can now meet on equal terms, as citizen and patriot, striving and struggling together for a new Burma. Along the way, they are inspiring us all.

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