Behind the Story: TIME’s Hannah Beech on Burma’s President Thein Sein

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Soe Than WIN / AFP / Getty Images

Burma's President Thein Sein speaks at a press conference at the presidential residence in Naypyidaw on Oct. 21, 2012

In a rare example of top-down change, Burma’s President Thein Sein has begun introducing democratic reforms after decades of military rule in the country also known as Myanmar. For this week’s TIME International cover story, available to subscribers here, Beijing-based East Asia correspondent Hannah Beech traveled to the former general’s home village and interviewed him at his office in Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw. TIME asked her to share her thoughts on this unlikely reformer and his country’s future.

Thein Sein repeatedly used the word democracy, in English, in your interview. What is his vision for the country? What is his understanding of democracy?

I think Thein Sein understands that there should be checks and balances, that there should be accountability, and that will help develop the economy. His commitment to the word democracy is not necessarily a commitment to the grand ideals that we talk about — but those are very difficult to implement in any society. He’s talking about a system where you don’t have a small elite that has runaway power, which is still what Burma is today. Yes, Burma is changing, but it has not completely changed.

Still, it is remarkable that it has come so far. One thing that amazes me every time I go back is that the atmosphere is so different now compared to a couple years ago: there are pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi everywhere, and my colleagues at Burmese newspapers and magazines can actually print real stories.

Among the exile community, some suspect the reforms are just an illusion. Critics are right to be skeptical and hold the regime to account. Yet there is a fair point to be made that if reforms are happening, there should be international goodwill toward them. If there isn’t that kind of international response, it is going to be much harder for Thein Sein to deal with hard-liners within the regime who don’t want reforms.

(MORE: The Regime’s Inner Reformist: Can Thein Sein Change Burma?)

In 2007 you wrote that “Burma’s generals have led their nation astray.” Six years on, some of those generals are still in power, but as part of the country’s new, quasi-civilian government. What has changed?

What has changed is that the person who is in charge has been willing to commit himself to reform. I don’t think it is fair to say all the same old people are in charge. Some junta members have either died or retired, most prominently Senior General Than Shwe, who was widely considered a paranoid, conservative and xenophobic person and set the tone for the entire military. Thein Sein came in and people assumed that he was going to be a puppet, but in fact he has begun reforms in the country.

It’s very hard for us to look at faceless generals and know what people are really thinking. Every time you consider regime change, whether it was the Soviet Union or in Asia, from Indonesia and South Korea to Taiwan, you discover that this big monolithic regime that we talked about actually had some people who were naturally more liberal and reformist. But because they were within the system, they couldn’t voice their opinions.

One issue that we didn’t mention in the story was Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the construction of the Myitsone dam, a multibillion-dollar Chinese-backed project that was supported by the former junta but was extremely unpopular among ordinary Burmese because it’s located at this very spiritual confluence of two important rivers. The fact that construction was suspended showed a commitment to address the wishes of the people, although we should note that it hasn’t been canceled outright.

(MORE: Will Ethnic Violence Kill Burma’s Fragile Reforms?)

Thein Sein spent most of his life in the Burmese military, which holds a fourth of the seats in parliament and receives more than a fifth of the national budget. Will the former general be able to rein in the military?

Previously, if you were a young and bright Burmese, one of the ways you could rise in society was to become a member of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese armed forces. It’s not that all 400,000 of those people are bad people. They joined the military for complex reasons, and some of them are reformers. The question is whether those people now have the power and legitimacy to push their agendas, because there are others who are not so liberal.

Naturally, there are a lot of people who want the perks associated with the military to continue. And another danger is that Thein Sein becomes power-hungry. The point of consolidation in Burma will come with the general elections in 2015.

Burma is still at war with Kachin rebels near the country’s border with China, and other ethnic conflicts still simmer. Does Thein Sein  have a recipe for peace?

There has been success in signing cease-fires. Whether these will hold is another matter. The fact that he said in December 2011 that there would be a cessation of violence with the Kachin and then fighting kept on going shows that there was a discrepancy between what he was saying and what was happening on the front lines.

Politically speaking, there is very little sympathy for the ethnic minorities among the Buddhist Bamar, or Burman, majority and there is almost no sympathy for the Muslim Rohingya. It’s not just Thein Sein who is not addressing this fully, it is also Aung San Suu Kyi. She says it’s not her position to speak up, but her word has incredible import, and she hasn’t said as much as I think she should have on behalf of Burma’s disenfranchised communities.

Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi are both 67 years old. Where is the next generation of reformers? 

One big question for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is if they win the next election, do they have luminaries beyond Suu Kyi and a few others? There is no shortage of smart, young people in Burma, but whether they are actually involved in the political process is a big unknown. If the NLD should ever get into a position where they are in government, will they have the manpower to do it well? I’m not so sure.

(MORE: Obama in Burma: U.S. President’s Landmark Visit Brings Hope, Criticism)

Have the visits by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped Burma’s reform process?

Skeptics would say that Obama basically helped the regime promote a fig-leaf democracy. But for the average Burmese, the visit didn’t legitimize Thein Sein’s government. People lined up at places like Aung San Suu Kyi’s house to welcome Obama, not at some government building. Besides pro forma meetings with officials, he was mostly meeting people outside of the government. Ordinary people were really excited to know that Burma mattered, that a U.S. President would come and give this rather magnificent speech at Rangoon University.

Anything else that surprised you?

One of the reasons I am so amazed by the changes in Burma is that I live in China, which is still an authoritarian state where there is an incredible level of media censorship. When I take a flight from Beijing to Rangoon, I land in Burma and can check my Facebook, I can read newspapers with real content and websites aren’t blocked. I can talk to taxi drivers about incredibly sensitive political issues. The differences between these two countries really strike me. This is not to say Burma doesn’t have problems, but the changes that have happened are so remarkable and they are particularly remarkable for someone living in an authoritarian country. Burma is certainly not yet a democracy, it is still a rigged system, but it’s on a path China doesn’t yet seem to be.

PHOTOS: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Path to Victory by James Nachtwey

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