Inside Man

Monday, Jan. 21, 2013

Inside Man

By Hannah Beech / Kyonku and Naypyidaw

Deep in Burma‘s irrawaddy delta, the rhythms of Kyonku village echo from another century. Oxen and buffalo plow the paddies; women in sarongs smoke pipes and swat mosquitoes, which can carry malaria or dengue. Decades ago, ethnic Karen insurgents, one of many tribal militias that battled Burma’s long-ruling military regime, prowled the hills. Today the Karen rebels have laid down their arms. Instead, wild elephants roam after sunset, occasionally charging villagers in a fury of tusks.

The wooden house in Kyonku where Burma’s 67-year-old President, Thein Sein, grew up still stands, a creaky time capsule in a country largely preserved in amber. Thein Sein’s father wove mats and hefted river cargo. The family was poor, like so many in then British Burma–a category that still includes one-third of Burmese. Attending college was unaffordable. But Thein Sein passed the test for the Defense Services Academy, launching, in 1965, a 45-year military career that ended when he retired as the country’s fourth-ranking general and then assumed the civilian presidency in March 2011. An isolated country now also known as Myanmar, Burma has been navigating a path between military dictatorship and democratic governance, and this quiet son of the delta is in charge.

Kyonku is a world away from Naypyidaw, the new Burmese capital, where the President lives. Unveiled in 2005, Naypyidaw was purpose-built to the ruling generals’ specifications, replete with eight-lane avenues and extravagant buildings. The presidential palace tries to take its architectural cues from Versailles but has ended up looking like something the Real Housewives of New Jersey might have designed. Sitting in a gilded throne that could easily fit three heads of state, Thein Sein seems out of place–by far the least prepossessing force in a receiving hall filled with ministers and attendants. At ease, his expression resembles that of a turtle digesting a lettuce lunch: mild, blinking, contemplative. “I must admit that I never dreamed of becoming President,” he tells me during a rare interview before deflecting further. “There are other qualified people.” He trails off into a round of noisy throat clearing. He is a former junta henchman better known for listening, a leader still trying to find his voice.

On the slumped shoulders of this slight man rests the future of Burma. So do the world’s hopes that a land of nearly 60 million people (not to mention the planet’s largest population of domesticated elephants) can pull off a democratic transition and serve as a model for other emerging nations. Compared with the explosive revolutions of the Arab Spring, Burma’s transformation has been far more peaceful and all the more surprising. Just a couple of years ago, Burma was a global pariah, an outpost of tyranny in the U.S. government’s view because of the ruling junta’s often murderous disregard for its people. Yet it was members of that paranoid military regime who catalyzed the liberalizations now remaking Burma. For once, political change came not from an angry outpouring on the streets but from the nexus of power. “We are in the midst of an unprecedented period of transition,” Thein Sein tells TIME, “from military to democratic government, from armed conflict to peace and from a centralized economy to a new, market-oriented economy.” Any one of those shifts could take decades. Burma is attempting all at the same time.

For nearly half a century, the army junta cowed Burma and ruined its economy. Rape was used as a weapon of war in ethnic areas, and children were enslaved. The military turned its guns on pro-democracy protesters, most recently in 2007 when dozens of Buddhist monks were killed. (Burma is a mainly Buddhist country.) When the top brass, led by the notoriously reclusive junta chief Than Shwe, announced that Burma would hold elections in 2010 as part of a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” the world scoffed. Sure enough, the polls were rigged, and the military’s proxy party prevailed. The choice of Thein Sein as President instead of other, more battle-hardened junta members hardly seemed to matter. Thein Sein had served as Than Shwe’s right-hand man and was dismissed by critics as the Senior General’s puppet.

But over the past year, the marionette has taken on a life of his own. Thein Sein’s reforms are unfolding in a strategically vital nation that is the latest ideological battleground between China’s authoritarian development model and a messier Western form of democratic governance. There’s no question which side of the political divide the President has publicly chosen. “As we undertake reforms, my position toward democracy has become firmer,” he says. “I believe we can’t develop the Myanmar economy without democracy.” As if to underscore the point, Thein Sein repeats the word democracy in English.

Mixed Blessings

Not long ago, campaigning for democracy in Burma could have landed a person in a tropical gulag. Now basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly and the right to form labor unions have been enshrined. In August, Thein Sein purged hard-liners from his Cabinet, and in November he welcomed Barack Obama to a country whose xenophobic rulers once feared a U.S. invasion. Cease-fires have been signed with nearly all the ethnic militias. Jails have been emptied of thousands of political prisoners. Press censorship has mostly disappeared.

In April 2012 by-elections, the country’s most famous citizen, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was elected to parliament along with 42 other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 1990 general elections that the junta ignored. Until late 2010, the democracy icon languished under house arrest, confined for much of the previous two decades by generals petrified by her global appeal. Than Shwe reportedly forbade people to mention her name. The new President had her over for dinner. While Suu Kyi, known in Burma as the Lady, remains the celebrated symbol of the country’s fight for freedom, it is Thein Sein, the reluctant President, who is the unlikely enabler.

Burma’s political evolution is far from finished, however. The constitution reserves powerful positions for those with military backgrounds and pointedly excludes Suu Kyi–far more beloved in Burma than Thein Sein–from becoming President. International sanctions may have been lifted, but much of the country still lives hand to mouth. Graft is epidemic, and in November security forces attacked Buddhist monks protesting a Chinese-linked copper mine. Ethnic strife continues to claim hundreds of lives in northern Kachin and western Arakan (or Rakhine). Thein Sein’s response to both security crises has been tepid. In recent days, the Burmese military has launched air strikes on Kachin rebels and looks to be advancing on their stronghold even though the President had earlier called for a truce, sparking concern that the military may not be heeding his command. The only time Thein Sein looks peevish during our interview is when I press him on the Arakan violence, which has left more than 100,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps. “Next question,” he says.

The country’s biggest test will come in 2015, when general elections are expected. Thein Sein has praised Suu Kyi’s quest for democracy, but how will his administration react if her NLD defeats the military’s proxy party? Will the government fix the vote again? More worrying: disgruntled top military ranks could launch another coup like the one in 1962 that brought men in uniform to power for the first time. To ensure he would not be purged upon retirement (as happened to a previous junta chief, who died under house arrest), Than Shwe, now in his 80s, may well have reached a deal with Thein Sein. But who knows how other army officers still in their prime feel about their diminished authority? “Right now we have to create an environment in which reformers see that their efforts are appreciated,” says Min Zaw Oo, an exiled student activist who returned last year. Thein Sein agrees. “I took up the responsibility of being President because I knew Myanmar was at a critical juncture,” he says. “It was not because I wanted power but because I wanted a better life for the people of my country.”

In photographs, General Thein Sein looks like a Hollywood version of a banana-republic honcho, his narrow chest overwhelmed by the rows of medals and ribbons pinned to his uniform. U.S. diplomats described him as an apparatchik, a longtime aide to Than Shwe who betrayed little of his own personality. “I don’t think Than Shwe had any idea Thein Sein would change things so quickly,” says Hla Maung Shwe, vice president of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and a former political prisoner. “Really, we were all very surprised.”

Agent of Change

What prompted the transformation of the junta’s No. 4 general? One explanation is that Thein Sein, a loyal soldier, was trained to follow orders but that once given the opportunity to exercise power, he had few qualms about asserting his moral authority. Unlike some other junta members, he was never directly implicated in major human-rights abuses or frontline massacres.

Also, Thein Sein was affected by what he saw overseas. He ventured abroad for the first time only in his 40s, but unlike Burma’s other bunkered generals, at least he came into contact with the outside world. By then, what was once the planet’s largest exporter of rice trailed far behind Asia’s booming economies. The parlous state of the nation became tragically clear in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis swept across the Irrawaddy Delta, claiming some 130,000 lives. In the crucial days after the worst storm in Burma’s history, the generals refused to accept international aid lest foreign ideological influences accompany the donations. A week after the cyclone, I sneaked by boat into villages where survivors were subsisting on ruined rice and water in which corpses still floated. The first junta member to visit the disaster zone was Thein Sein. He must have been appalled. “Thein Sein went to the Senior General [Than Shwe] and said, ‘Please, we must help our people,'” government adviser Nay Win Maung, who died early last year, recalled in November 2011. “He doesn’t take credit for it, but he made a big difference.”

No dictatorship is as monolithically malevolent as it might seem from the outside. And in a military-linked regime, once the chain of command shifts from a paranoid chief to a more open-minded leader, change can occur remarkably quickly. The upper ranks of Burma’s 400,000-strong armed forces, it turns out, were filled with eager English speakers who had no wish to live in a pariah state. Thein Sein, who speaks decent English, says he devoured memoirs of Western leaders like Obama, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. In Naypyidaw, I met the editor of the New Light of Myanmar, once one of the world’s most strident government mouthpieces. Than Myint Tun, a former army officer, cheerfully admits to having listened to foreign news reports that his newspaper warned were “killer broadcasts” intent on “sowing hatred.” “Who wants to always be in the dark?” asks the editor. “We want to be part of the global community.”



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