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

TIME profiles the President of Burma — and looks at the challenges that face him and the world’s newest economic frontier

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Thein Sein
Adam Ferguson / VII for TIME

Thein Sein, President of Burma, stands for a portrait at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw, Burma, on Nov. 28, 2012

Now that international sanctions have been lifted on Burma, Western businessmen are flocking to the world’s newest economic frontier. The dramatic political climate change is due to reforms that emanated from within the military regime that once ruled the country; and chief among the reformers is President Thein Sein, Burma’s own Gorbachev, down to his gray pallor and balding pate — who’s the subject of a TIME profile this week, available to subscribers here. While Russia has faltered on its path toward democracy, Burma, which is officially known as Myanmar, has a chance to forge a different route.

He has been startlingly conciliatory to the opposition once hounded mercilessly by the military regime — including the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi. 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.”

There’s a tantalizing hint of his principles from the President’s days as a major. In the weeks after the generals crushed the 1988 pro-democracy movement — in which Suu Kyi gained fame — by killing hundreds of protesters, students and monks tried to flee to neighboring countries. While other commanders imprisoned the activists they caught, Thein Sein quietly released some of them. “Thein Sein is a simple man, but he is a good man,” says Soe Thane, the former head of the Burmese navy and now a reformist minister in the President’s Office. “He is a statesman, not a politician.”

(MORE: Aung San Suu Kyi’s World: Portraits of Burmese Dissidents and Activists)

The once formidable regime began to transform after a cataclysmic cyclone in 2008 pummeled the country. Burmese who criticized the government’s response were handed lengthy jail terms. A further man-made crisis was averted when aid, both domestic and foreign, began reaching far-flung villages. But, in the generals’ lair, Naypyidaw — a multibillion-dollar fortress against regime change — even Burma’s rulers felt the landscape was shifting. Now in his 80s, Than Shwe, the head of the junta, was surely concerned about his legacy. Previous junta leaders had been purged upon retirement. “The senior general didn’t want to spend his last years under house arrest,” says an aide to Thein Sein. “He trusted Thein Sein to keep his promise to let him disappear gracefully.” Thein Sein told TIME that he and his former boss “do not speak regularly.”

For all the praise heaped upon his tenure thus far, Thein Sein and the new Burma face considerable hurdles. If he is the indispensable man of the moment, then his well-being is at issue. He wears a pacemaker for his heart. There is also always the danger that a man whom history has designated a transitional figure will not accept his own transition.

(MORE: TIME’s Hannah Beech on Burma’s President Thein Sein)

If Burma wants true international approval, it will have to tackle the broken economy as well as the gap between what new laws promise and what they so far have delivered. Foreign investment in Burma actually declined in the first nine months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011. Regime cronies are feasting on the nation’s natural resources, grabbing land and sweetheart contracts. The scale of graft is epidemic. In November, thugs broke up a Buddhist-monk-led protest over a copper mine linked to a Chinese arms manufacturer, a common terror tactic during the junta’s days. (The government later apologized for the crackdown in which protesters were burned and beaten.)

(MORE: Burma to Allow Daily Private Newspapers)

Perhaps the most important — and certainly the most existential — challenge 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 tribal mistrust have left more than a million people in Burma displaced or stateless.

One of the most contentious areas is far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, where the population includes Arakanese Buddhists and stateless Muslims called Rohingya. Since June, clashes between the Arakanese and Muslim residents have claimed at least 100 lives across Arakan and left tens of thousands more homeless.

The generals who wrested control of Burma from its civilian rulers in 1962 didn’t bother much with justifying their rule. But any shred of legitimacy the army regime 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 officially recognized as such, compounding the problems in Arakan). Since coming to power, Thein Sein’s government has signed cease-fires with 10 major ethnic militias, which were fighting for autonomy. Only one ethnic insurgent group, 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, the Burmese military has escalated hostilities by launching air strikes on the Kachin.

(MORE: The Waiting House: Caring for Burma’s HIV Patients)

Thein Sein says further reforms 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.”

Sometimes, even reformists are only willing to go so far. The army’s shelling of the Kachin undercuts Thein Sein’s vow to seek peace with the rebels, while his response to the Arakan violence is tepid at best. At first, he seemed to indicate that the Rohingya should be sent to Bangladesh, arguing that they were Bengali immigrants. (Bangladesh, which already hosts tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees, has refused to accept any more.) The only time Thein Sein looked peevish during our interview was when TIME pressed him on the fate of the Rohingya. “Next question,” he said.

MORE: Burma’s Armed Forces Day: Men in Business Suits, Not Uniforms, Seize the Moment