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.