In this photo taken on March 6, 2009, Myanmar's then Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein takes part in a religious ceremony at Upathasanthi Pagoda in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar. Myanmar's newly elected parliament named the key figure in the long-ruling military junta as president Friday, Feb. 4, 2011 ensuring that the first civilian government in decades will be dominated by the army that has brutally suppressed dissent. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
They are the least likely of political partners. He is a dour, stone-faced former general from a repressive regime. She is a wisp of a woman, a fighter for democracy with a magnetic personality and flowers in her hair. Yet President U Thein Sein of Burma (he calls it Myanmar) and the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who still calls it Burma) have been in the United States in recent weeks, each putting on a display of unprecedented amity and cooperation.
Thein Sein, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, said of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been on a triumphant American tour, during which she collected the Congressional Gold Medal: “As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy.” Aung San Suu Kyi, speaking at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, called Thein Sein a good partner who “is keen on democratic reforms.”
The two met privately in New York, but did not appear in public together, said Frances Zwenig, Counselor at the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington, who has been working with the Burmese to promote better understanding and closer ties with the United States.
The political changes are phenomenal in Burma, where I have just been to hear people’s hopes and concerns about their new world. Regionally, Southeast Asia has not seen such a dramatic political shift in a generation or more. In Washington, the Obama administration reacted swiftly to end the isolation and punishment of the Burmese and their pariah junta. The first American ambassador in 22 years has taken up residence in Rangoon, and most sanctions are being suspended or eased, among them, a blanket ban imports from Burma.
Almost two years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Rangoon (renamed Yangon by the military in 1989) while Thein Sein was prime minister under a brutal military ruler, Than Shwe, who plotted unsuccessfully in 2003 to have Aung San Suu Kyi assassinated.
By the end of 2010, however, events had taken a momentous, unexpected turn. Only weeks after a flawed November election boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, she was freed from house arrest. In 2011, Thein Sein became a nominally civilian president. In March of this year, “the Lady,” as she is known universally in Burma, led her party to a landslide victory in parliamentary by-elections, winning 43 of 44 contested races, and took her seat as head of the first credible political opposition to emerge since the military first seized power in 1962.
Reforms come at a surprisingly swift pace: the freeing of most (but not yet all) political prisoners, an end to censorship, new freedom of assembly, the winnowing of a black list of as many as 6,000 people denied entry to the country.
There is a lot of real politik at play on both sides. Aung San Suu Kyi, who now talks of compromise as the way out of the Burmese economic and political doldrums, has said on her American tour that she and her party took the contentious but required parliamentary oath to defend an odious military-made constitution because her voters wanted even that small opposition in parliament—about 6.5 percent of more than 600 seats in a bicameral legislature. Democracy activists, not all of them in the National League for Democracy, and many exiles also wanted to see what space could be opened by that political wedge.
For the Burmese military, presiding over a collapsed economy and the corrupt collusion of well placed Burmese in the increasing Chinese domination of trade and the wholesale extraction – for Chinese use -- of natural resources, including oil and gas, gemstones and timber, there had to be new thinking.
Commentators in neighboring countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which the Burmese rank at the bottom in human development, have been saying for several years that the generals were beginning to realize that they needed friends in other powerful nations, particularly the United States, to help right the balance. What better voice for Burma in the West than Aung San Suu Kyi, who had become a symbol of everything they were not? Let her go.
Parliament is still packed with military men, and lurking in the background are officers who may see their outrageous economic perks in jeopardy and will have to be convinced that democracy and free enterprise at home, coupled with overtures to industrial nations aboard, will pay off in other, relatively more legal, pursuits than land-grabbing and skimming profits from state-owned enterprises.
Residents of Rangoon -- the largest city but no longer the capital, which has moved north to purpose-built Naypyidaw – say that property speculation has exploded with the vision on the horizon of foreign companies and nongovernmental organizations and their expatriate staffs arriving. Landowners are building garish mansions and apartment complexes for rent at rates as high or higher than Bangkok, some reaching luxury urban American levels.
Assuming everything stays on track over the next few years, the Thein Sein gamble on radical change will be tested in critical national elections in 2015. For the reformers, the stakes are high.
Burma, with about 60 million people (a new census is being planned with the help of the United Nations Population Fund) in an area roughly the size of France, is not an unimportant Asian country. It is strategically placed between rivals China and India, though the Indian government is in such trouble at home – including in the restive Indian Northeast, bordering Burma – that it is not in a position to exert as much influence over Burmese events as China or Thailand can. Meanwhile, half way around the world the possible benefits of a “pivot to Asia” in the Obama administration’s foreign policy thinking, and the implied intention of containing China,are not lost on the Burmese.
The country has enormous potential. Before the military wrecked the economy and severely repressed its people, Burma was the world’s largest rice exporter. It had two of Asia’s leading universities, in Rangoon and Mandalay. Even today, after systematic neglect and occasional attacks on the education system over half a century, the Burmese have a literacy rate of about 92 percent, according to UN agencies and the World Bank.
What the Burmese do not have is ethnic harmony and the fair treatment of minorities, and this is where the government will have to make some very difficult decisions if a more open country can truly develop, and if outsiders can be persuaded not to continue sanctions in the name of human rights.
Thein Sein told his UN audience that “informal consultations” have begun with armed Kachin rebels in the north, who are still at war with the central government, and a commission has been established to report on what caused a recent outbreak of violence in Rakhine (Arakan) state between Muslims known as Rohingyas, and Buddhist Burmese. Foreign diplomats, and a delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have been given tours of the state.
The conflict Rakhine state reveals more than just ethnic tensions. It highlights the discriminatory view of a large non-Burman minority held by many people in this majority Burman-Buddhist nation, where monks are a powerful political force. Rohingyas, originally ethnically Bengalis, are denied Burmese citizenship even though some of their forbearers have been in the country more than 150 years. They are the subject of racist slurs and, being Muslim, they are the bane of monks, who are respected for their support for the democracy and for the social and educational services they perform in many communities.
The result is that neither the government nor Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burman Buddhist, has been forceful in addressing the inequities suffered by the Rohingyas. Until they do, the transformation of Burma will be incomplete.