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National League for Democracy supporters celebrate outside the NLD headquarters as they watch results come in for the byelections in Yangon, Myanmar (Adam Dean/Adam Dean)
National League for Democracy supporters celebrate outside the NLD headquarters as they watch results come in for the byelections in Yangon, Myanmar (Adam Dean/Adam Dean)

Myanmar

Is Burma having its Mandela moment? Add to ...

A triumph born out of farce

No one expected any of this a year ago, when Mr. Thein Sein was sworn in after a parliamentary election that was denounced as a sham by both Ms. Suu Kyi and her allies in the international community.

The November, 2010, vote – the first since a landslide 1990 election win by the NLD that the military never honoured – was stage-managed to the point of farce. With Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest, the NLD boycotted the vote and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a motley collection of recently decommissioned soldiers and their allies, won an improbable 77 per cent of the seats.

Mr. Thein Sein was the party's nominal leader in the campaign, but everyone was sure that the real power still rested with the old junta boss, Senior General Than Shwe.

Mr. Thein Sein's subsequent appointment as President elicited no excitement inside or outside Myanmar. He had been the junta's prime minister, and was seen as a weak figure with no support, whether in the general population or the military.

Many believe that he was chosen precisely because of that weakness; he was supposedly a figure Gen. Than Shwe could easily manipulate as he continued to control the country from the shadows. Mr. Thein Sein would be the regime's slightly more pleasant face, but few believed anything substantive had changed in Naypyidaw, the junta's newly built and bizarrely empty capital city.

But then the unexpected happened: Gen. Than Shwe really did retire, or at least disappeared from the public eye. Some say he fell ill. And Mr. Thein Sein, whose reputation in the country was as a relatively moderate and uncorrupt general in a regime dominated by hardliners and kleptocrats, was suddenly in control.

Those who know Mr. Thein Sein say he grew disillusioned with the junta system after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which saw his native Irrawaddy Delta obliterated and 130,000 people killed.

Though theoretically in charge of the relief operation, Mr. Thein Sein was hamstrung by his own bureaucracy and Gen. Than Shwe's refusal to allow in outside help. It's likely that tens of thousands of cyclone victims died unnecessarily because of the government's inept response.

After Nargis, a clique of would-be reformers (some of whom are now in Mr. Thein Sein's cabinet) began to develop inside the regime. Three years later, they found themselves in charge of the country.

“People mistakenly refer to the old system as the ‘junta,' when in fact it was a dictatorship of one man, Senior General Than Shwe. All of the people under him were loyal to him, but they may have had different opinions about how the country should be run,” says Thant Myint-U, a historian and long-time United Nations diplomat (his grandfather was secretary-general) who now shuttles in and out of Myanmar, occasionally advising Mr. Thein Sein on economic policy.

Ms. Suu Kyi understood that Gen. Than Shwe's exit created a new dynamic, and moved quickly to see if the new President was serious about his promises of reform. “You could say that the deal that was offered to her is not that different from what she was offered as far back as 1995,” Mr. Thant Myint-U says. “The difference is, she was willing to trust Thein Sein.”

And Mr. Thein Sein? “He wants to be seen as the man who presided over Myanmar's transition to democracy.”

The backroom connection

The push to get Ms. Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein in a room together came from a group of regime-connected businessmen who six years ago formed an organization known as Myanmar Egress (egress: a way out). Headed by Nay Win Maung, the son of a military officer who owned two pro-regime newspapers, Egress became one of the more controversial organizations in the country, seen by some as a rare example of civil society taking root, while others accused it of being little more than a public-relations firm for the junta.

Precisely because of those regime connections, however, they became a go-to point for foreign journalists and diplomats trying to understand the changes taking place in the country, and eventually for Ms. Suu Kyi and the democracy movement. Visiting the office of Myanmar Egress, on the second floor of a drab, concrete office block in downtown Rangoon, was a way to speak to the generals without speaking to the generals.

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