Inside Man

Monday, Jan. 21, 2013
Inside Man
By Hannah Beech / Kyonku And Naypyidaw

In a rare example of top-down change, Burma’s leader, Thein Sein, is opening up his once pariah military state and shooting for democracy. But will the new freedom last?

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 dozens of 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, strolling after sunset and 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 to make ends meet. The family was poor, like so many in then British Burma — a category that still includes one-third of Burmese. Attending university 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 officially known as Myanmar, Burma is now navigating a path between military dictatorship and democratic governance, and this quiet son of the delta is in charge.

Today, Thein Sein's nephew runs a small shop in Kyonku next to the President's childhood home, selling bottles of palm toddy and the betel that stain Burmese smiles crimson. The nephew's youngest daughter has never met her famous relative, who now lives in Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, with its eight-lane avenues and grandiose ministry buildings. But the 6-year-old has a request for her granduncle. "Please ask him to buy me a car," Su Myat Yi tells me, as the sole electric bulb in her house flutters, then dies. It seems a ludicrous request in a dirt-path village with no running water. Politicians anywhere, from dictatorships to democracies, divert goodies back to their hometowns. But in a sign of the President's clean image in this chronically corrupt nation, Thein Sein's ascension to power has not changed Kyonku. Still, a Burmese girl can dream. "A nice big car," she says. "With air-conditioning."

A Remarkable Journey
Kyonku is a world away from Naypyidaw, which was purpose-built to the ruling generals' specifications and unveiled in 2005. 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. Its 100 or so rooms overflow with orchids and are lit by exuberant chandeliers. 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. He has none of the gravitas of a strongman. "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. Thein Sein 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 junta's often murderous disregard for its people. Yet members of that same paranoid military regime are engendering the liberalizations remaking Burma. For once in the political tumult of recent years, reforms have come not from an angry outpouring on the streets but from the nexus of power.

The kind of historic change unfolding in Burma is usually led by confident and charismatic individuals, like China's Deng and South Africa's Mandela. But, down to his gray pallor and balding pate, Thein Sein is more Burma's Gorbachev, a diffident, seemingly colorless apparatchik whose accomplishments could far eclipse the man himself. "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.

Burma might seem a backwater, but it is a geopolitical cornerstone wedged between the planet's two most populous countries, India and China. Laden with natural resources, the crossroads nation is also the newest economic (and tourist) frontier, now that most Western sanctions have been lifted because of the new government's reforms. Burma may be deeply impoverished, but it is also a place of uncommon promise located in the world's most dynamic and fastest-growing continent. "That's why what happens here is so important — not only to this region but the world," said Barack Obama in November when he became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma. "You're taking a journey that has the potential to inspire so many people. This is a test of whether a country can transition to a better place."

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, Senior General 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. Though considered placid and even kindly by some, Thein Sein had served as Than Shwe's right-hand man for years and was dismissed by critics as the Senior General's puppet.

But over the past year, the presumed 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. While Thein Sein expresses gratitude to a giant neighbor that was for years one of Burma's few international patrons, 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.

Not so 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. Last August, Thein Sein purged military hard-liners from his Cabinet and three months later welcomed 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. Media 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 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. 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. (The constitution can be revised, but any amendment must be approved by a parliament in which one-quarter of the seats are filled by soldiers.) Much of the country still lives hand to mouth. Ethnic strife continues to plague some borderlands. Now that international sanctions have been suspended or scrapped, Western businessmen are flocking to Burma's commercial capital, Rangoon. Yet foreign investment in Burma actually declined in the first nine months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011. Business cronies are feasting on the nation's rich natural resources, grabbing lands and sweetheart contracts. The scale of graft is epidemic.

The country's biggest test will come in 2015, when general elections are expected. In a September speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, Thein Sein acknowledged the "authoritarian" nature of the junta he once belonged to and congratulated Suu Kyi "for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy." But how will his administration react if Suu Kyi's NLD defeats the military's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party in future elections, as most Burmese expect will happen? Will the government again rig the vote?

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 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 acknowledges how delicate this period is for Burma. "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 describe Than Shwe's longtime aide as betraying little of his own personality in meetings. "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."

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, once given the opportunity to exercise power, he asserted his moral authority. Unlike some other junta members, he was never directly implicated in major human-rights abuses or frontline massacres. There's a tantalizing hint of his principles from the President's days as a major in the light-infantry division. In the weeks after the then junta crushed the 1988 pro-democracy movement by killing hundreds of protesters, a wave of students and monks tried to flee to neighboring countries. Many army commanders imprisoned or even ordered the executions of the activists they caught. Thein Sein, in contrast, released some of those captured under his command.

Thein Sein was also 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 in the disaster zone was Thein Sein. "He went to the Senior General [Than Shwe] and said, 'Please, we must help our people. It is the Buddhist thing to do,'" 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."

The Wars at Home
Burma has many problems: the broken economy for one, and the gap between what the law promises and what it has so far delivered — as in November when security forces attacked monks protesting a Chinese-linked copper mine. Perhaps the most important challenge, and certainly the most existential, is the ethnic friction that could cleave a nation with little binding it together other than lines drawn on colonial maps. Decades of fighting and mistrust have left more than a million people in Burma displaced or stateless.

One contentious area is far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state. Though up to half its population is Muslim, in the sleepy capital, Sittwe, I see just one mosque still unscathed. Its delicate spires rise from a grand prayer hall, but I cannot visit because of the soldiers cradling rifles outside. Instead, I spy the historic mosque from the balcony of the local government office across the street. There, an official insists that the reason some 100,000 members of a stateless Muslim ethnic group called the Rohingya now live in refugee camps is that they "burned down their own homes because there wasn't anything valuable in them." What about their places of worship, I ask. "They're fine," says the bureaucrat. Later, I tour the burned hulks or bulldozed remains of several Sittwe mosques. They do not look fine.

Since last June, clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim residents have claimed at least 100 lives across Arakan and left tens of thousands more homeless. Though some of the victims are Arakanese, most are Rohingya or Kaman, another Muslim ethnic group that, unlike the Rohingya, does hold Burmese citizenship. Sittwe, a town I last visited in April, has been ethnically cleansed. Muslim shopkeepers, traders and fishermen have disappeared from public life. Instead, they are squeezed into a fetid ghetto or live in rows of tents that sprawl across Arakan's salt swamps. The U.N. complains that international aid is being blocked. Deadly disease stalks the refugee camps.

The generals who wrested control of Burma in 1962 didn't bother much with justifying their rule. But any shred of legitimacy the junta possessed came from its purported ability to halt the centrifugal forces ripping apart this diverse nation. Cobbled together by the colonial British, Burma is a patchwork land of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. (The Rohingya are not included, compounding their burdens.) Since coming to power, Thein Sein's government has made peace with 10 major ethnic militias fighting for autonomy. Only the Kachin Independence Army remains at war. Since June 2011, fighting in Kachin areas, which border China, has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced some 100,000 people, most of whom have received no international aid. In recent days, military aircraft have fired on Kachin rebels and look to be advancing on their stronghold. This is happening even though Thein Sein had earlier called for a halt in combat — sparking concern that the military may not be heeding his command.

Further reforms, says Thein Sein, are key to defusing Burma's ethnic tinderbox. "It is only with a wholly democratic government that we can make peace sustainable," he says. Aung Min, a former major general who is now a minister dealing with ethnic affairs, talks about power-sharing arrangements to ensure that minorities, many of whom live in areas rich with natural resources, feel they are not being exploited. "The President is willing to try many things," he says. "He knows that the military should be the last resort to fix a conflict." But the shelling of the Kachin undercuts Thein Sein's vow to seek peace with the rebels, while his response to the Arakan violence has been tepid at best. The only time Thein Sein looks peevish during our interview is when I press him on the fate of the Rohingya. "Next question," he says. His reticence has been shared by Suu Kyi, who has disappointed some of her supporters with her refusal to speak more forcefully about the plight of Burma's ethnic groups.

Thein Sein's village of Kyonku lies just over the hills from Arakan. Both regions share a bounty of wild elephants, in particular the rare white variety that is believed, in Burma, to confer good fortune on a ruler's reign. It was in Arakan that the last five of these propitious beasts were caught. The most recent albino pachyderm was found in 2010, when the New Light of Myanmar proclaimed that "the auspicious occasion coincides with the democratic transition of the nation." Some of the Arakan white elephants now reside in a rather dispiriting enclosure in Naypyidaw. To tame such wild creatures, one elephant handler says, locals sing for days and stroke the animal until it "discovers it can feel happy among men." That's something Thein Sein, Burma's surprising conciliator, might understand.






< 素晴らしい遍歴 >
キョンクはネピドーから遠く離れた別世界だ。ネピドーは権力の座についた将軍の注文通りに建設され、2005年に披露された。大統領府はベルサイユ宮殿の建築様式を真似たかったようだが、出来上がったものはまるでニュージャージーの主婦たち(The Real Housewives of New Jersey: 連続TV番組)がデザインしたようなものになった。100ほどもある部屋には欄の花が溢れ、眩いばかりのシャンデリアが灯っている。大統領が3人いてもゆったりと座れるほどの金ピカの椅子に座っている姿は、どこか場違いに見える――大臣や招待客で華やぐ迎賓館では、最も魅力に欠ける要人に違いない。寛いでいると、カメが昼食のレタスで胃袋をいっぱいにした時の表情に似ている。穏やかで、眼を瞬かせ、沈思黙考している風だ。彼には敏腕政治家の重鎮さはない。「大統領になりたいなどと夢にも思ったことはありません」とやっと実現したインタビューの最中に私に言って、話をさらにそらそうとする。「他にもっと適任の人がいます」次第に声は小さくなり、耳障りな咳払いをひとしきりする。テイン・セインは前軍事政権の腹心だったが、イエスマンで自分の意見を持っていない指導者だ、と言われている。














独裁政権といっても、外見ほど全体が悪漢ばかりの一枚岩ではない。そして軍隊と一体になった政権は、その指揮系統が狂信的指導者からより開放的な指導者に移った時には、驚くほど急速に変化するものだ。4万の強力な軍隊を指揮する上官たちの中には、何と、熱心に英語を話したがる人たちが大勢いて、世界の嫌われ者の国家で生きたいとは願っていないのだ。テイン・セインもそれなりに英語を使いこなし、欧米諸国のリーダー達、オバマ、ヘンリー・キッシンジャー、トニー・ブレア―の回想録を必死で読んだという。ネピドーで、私はゴリゴリの政府御用新聞「ミャンマーの新たな光(New Light of Myanmar)」の編集者に会った。タン・ミントツンは元将軍だが、憎しみの種を蒔くことに熱心な「人殺しのメディア」と彼の新聞が警告していた外国メディアの報道を、実は聴いていたのだと陽気に認める。「何もわからない状態で常にいたいと、誰が望みますか」と編集者は言う。「私たちは国際社会の一員でありたいのです」

< 内戦 >






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