(Commentary) – To dismantle a dictatorship of half a century is a task far greater than resurrecting the Titanic.
Since the November 2010 Burmese elections, the government of Burmese President Thein Sein has embarked on an amazing feat of salvaging the sunken ship called Burma.
In less than a year, he confounded the world by stopping the controversial Myitsone Dam, reconciled with Aung San Suu Kyi, convinced President Obama to send Hillary Clinton to Burma, Min Ko Naing and other political prisoners were released, and press freedom became a possibility. Western nations rushed to follow the US engagement with Burma.
Following Suu Kyi’s election to Parliament, the US and western countries began lifting sanctions, and businesses started to talk about returning to Burma. The World Bank and a consortium of funding agencies pledged development aid, and the list goes on.
By July, the speaker of the Lower House met with ‘88 student leaders and on the ‘88 uprising anniversary Thein Sein sent two special ministers to participate in the commemoration ceremony.
Exiled journalists from the Irrawaddy, RFA, Mizzima, BBC and VOA were welcomed inside Burma. The powerful vice president hardliner Tin Aung Myint Oo resigned and a cabinet reshuffle took place with more moderate members put in place. Blacklisted exiles were pardoned.
The Rakhine conflict between Rhohingyas and Rakhine natives erupted, but despite missteps Thein Sein handled it with grace and a steady hand, and things are now settling down to a certain extent.
A challenge to the Constitution occurred in Parliament and the constitutional tribunal judges resigned, averting a a more serious crisis.
Through it all, President Thein Sein was his usual self, going about his business in a low-key, purposeful way.
If Suu Kyi is a democracy icon then Thein Sein is a quiet giant. He has a Herculean task to undo half a century of repression and authoritarian rule. He seems truly to be a humble man without false pride.
The former general has picked up the broken pieces of a nation and led the way toward democracy.
The UN this week is giving him a chance to shine when he addresses the general assembly on Thursday. He is not a powerful world-class intellect like Suu Kyi or a young and charismatic politico like Min Ko Naing, but so far he has carried his responsibility with dignity and purpose.
He seems to be a self-empowered leader with his head on his shoulders, and he has surprising political acumen for a man who has been in the army all his adult life. He is in fact the kind of unflappable leader with practical wisdom that Burma needs at this point.
The Western world is waking up to the fact Burma has more heroes than just Suu Kyi.
Min Ko Naing and his 88-generation leaders are considering forming a political party, which would bring fresh vitality to the political scene, and most importantly to the transitional process before the 2015 elections.
The run up to the election is a critical time for Burma to show its mettle and to put in place the foundations of a true democratic nation.