The president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, visited the United States of America in September for seven and 17 days respectively. While the adulation bestowed on Suu Kyi was only to be expected, the coverage given to Thein Sein was surprising but deservedly high. His visit was a message to the international media that, along with Suu Kyi, he is a pivot around whom the transformation of Myanmar revolves. Suu Kyi’s narration of her tribulations generated immense emotion and interest, but in his quiet and understated manner, Thein Sein built on that interest to explain the great complexities of political transition in his country.
Thein Sein’s role in Myanmar’s political reawakening is as important as Suu Kyi’s, and they appear to recognize that they need one another. They have worked in tandem to persuade the Americans to ease the trade embargo. Suu Kyi has legitimized Thein Sein’s authority, and the president’s biggest challenge is to carry the uncompromising elements of the Myanmar military leadership along with him as he presses ahead with the democratic reforms that he says are irreversible. One of his advisers is the acclaimed author and political commentator, Thant Myint-U.
It seems that there is growing convergence in the approaches of both leaders. In the run-up to Suu Kyi’s visit, Thein Sein granted amnesty to more than 500 prisoners, some of whom were political prisoners. Suu Kyi toned down the hard line she had adopted earlier and called on the US government to lift sanctions, and received promises of a gradual lifting of the import ban on goods from Myanmar. Speaking at the United Nations general assembly, Thein Sein congratulated Suu Kyi on the international recognition received by her for her efforts to promote democracy, and referred to her as the chairperson of the rule of law and stability committee of parliament, a subtle reference to drive home the point that the ongoing reform programme did not lack credibility.
This is not to say that everything is straightforward or benign between Naypyidaw and Suu Kyi. The military controls 25 per cent of the seats in state and national legislatures and there have been demands that such a weighty representation needs to be addressed. Thein Sein accepted that the armed forces played a significant role in the decision-making process and could not be excluded from the transition process for the moment. But he added that their representation in legislatures may witness a gradual decrease as had happened in Indonesia. In an apparent response, Suu Kyi observed that Myanmar can learn lessons not just from Asian countries such as Indonesia, but also from eastern European countries and South Africa, hinting that the democratization process should be speeded up.
While Suu Kyi was feted with honours in the US, she also came in for tough questioning on ethnic and sectarian issues. Her response has often been that the strengthening of institutions and the rule of law would create the basis for a sustainable peace process. While this may be true, the concerns of ethnic groups on the issues of identity and autonomy go well beyond just the context of the rule of law. While Suu Kyi’s supporters may worry that a misstep on the ethnic issue could provoke a nationalist backlash, members of ethnic and human rights organizations are impatient with Suu Kyi’s reluctance to articulate her views clearly on the principles to resolve the ethnic tensions in the country. Meanwhile, Thein Sein candidly admitted in the UN general assembly that while his government had reached ceasefire agreements with 10 armed groups, negotiations are still in progress with Kachin insurgents. He also referred to the sectarian violence in Arakan and the measures the government had taken there to manage the situation.
Thein Sein and Suu Kyi were both queried about their future political ambitions. Suu Kyi replied in the affirmative when asked if she aspired to be president, to which Thein Sein responded that she could be president provided the constitution permitted it and the public voted in her favour. While reiterating his own preference to retire after his current term, he added that “the future of the position depends on the needs of country and the wishes of the people”. This is the first time he has suggested that he could be in power even after the 2015 elections. It is possible that he wanted to reassure all stakeholders that there would be continuity in the coming years, and also to prevent any speculation of power struggle within the regime as to who would lay claim to his legacy.
While the visits of Thein Sein and Suu Kyi to the US received considerable attention, less prominent, but equally important, is the fact that Thein Sein visited China before the US. The Myanmar government, citing environmental concerns, had suspended the Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar. This would have supplied considerable amounts of power to China. The Chinese have made repeated efforts to revive this project, and there is yet no clarity about its status. Apart from this, there have been protests against copper mines operated jointly by Myanmar and Chinese companies, and these agitations have received considerable attention abroad. Thein Sein was anxious to assuage the concerns in China that their investments were insecure. While welcoming Chinese investment in Myanmar as long as it did not harm the environment or the dignity and sovereignty of the country, the president reaffirmed that given China’s sincere support over the years, the “policy of seeing China as a true friend has not changed”. In spite of some recent stress in the relations between the two countries, China continues to be by far the largest investor in Myanmar, and there have been a succession of high-level visits to Myanmar by senior Chinese officials.
During their recent visits overseas, Thein Sein and Suu Kyi were able to convey a gist of the intricacies involved in managing Myanmar’s internal contradictions and external expectations. Given the presence of armed ethnic groups, religious, resource and conflict-related issues and the strategic location of Myanmar between India and China, Myanmar’s leadership has to steer a course between numerous priorities and anxieties. Despite all the obstacles, Myanmar has made remarkable headway in the past two years, and the credit for that should go not only to Suu Kyi but also, and equally, to Thein Sein. The couple left America with sufficient evidence to show that they are winning the battle to end Myanmar’s isolation.
Myanmar is indeed fortunate that it has, as managers of the delicate and complex task of transition, simultaneously two leaders who have been compared to Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev — Suu Kyi as the Mandela-like reconciler endowed with moral authority, and Thien Sein as the Gorbachev-like committed reformer. The two have proved to be both pragmatic and strong enough to stand up against regressive thinking on the part of their comrades as well as that of their opponents. Suu Kyi is negotiating a delicate power balance without alienating her old party colleagues in the National League for Democracy or the military junta. Thein Sein has engineered a top-down revolution, allowed the opposition to contest elections, released hundreds of prisoners, ended censorship, promoted ceasefires, and reached out to the West. Together they constitute unprecedentedly promising prospects for Myanmar’s brighter future.