Burma's leader is bringing military regime in from cold

President Thein Sein's star is in the ascendant

Burma's new strongman wears a pacemaker and thick glasses. Like his predecessors, he's a General but – like Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army – a long, loyal career has seen him seated at his desk in many of the safest places in the republic.

But when he made his inaugural speech, President Thein Sein appeared to have at least one attribute of the tyrants who came before him: brass cheek. According to Marie Lall, a specialist on South Asian affairs, he told Burma's new parliament on 22 August of action to ensure good governance, clean government and democratic practices. He spoke of fundamental rights of citizens, the rule of law, transparency, reducing the gap between rich and poor, creation of a harmonious society, economic reforms and environmental conservation. It was, in other words, a knockabout comedy of a speech, given the fact few nations embody the absence of those attributes better than Burma. Yet this President is proving a surprise: he appears to mean it – or at least some of it.

Thein Sein became President on 30 March but it was only in August, with parliament preparing to convene, that he showed his hand in the most unexpected way: by inviting the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to an hour-long one-on-one meeting, followed by dinner with himself and his wife. Ms Suu Kyi was freed from more than seven years' detention last November, but her liberty was of a very restricted sort. For months she never left Rangoon, merely shuttling between her home and the office of her National League for Democracy party. Theoretically she was free to travel, but when the possibility was raised, The New Light of Burma, the regime's daily paper, shot back that she and her party would "meet their tragic ends" if they tried it – a reminder that the last time she went travelling, in 2003, she narrowly avoided being murdered by thugs allied to the regime. Her party was unregistered, having boycotted the elections of November 2010. She was famous around the world, still almost universally regarded as the authoritative voice of Burma's democratic opposition. But in her homeland she was practically a pariah.

The President's invitation changed that overnight. Invited to see him alone, it was recognition at the highest level that if his government hoped to persuade the world that it was serious about making Burma more democratic, it could not do so without involving Ms Suu Kyi and her party.

That meeting was followed by a blizzard of reforms. The most unexpected, and arguably the boldest, was the decision this month to halt to the building of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy river, a Chinese-inspired project that had provoked a broad-based opposition movement. Then this week came the announcement that 6,359 prisoners were to be freed. It is not yet clear how many of those are prisoners of conscience. If the number is large, it will be a giant step for Thein Sein's credibility.

Peter Popham's new biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, 'The Lady And The Peacock', is released on 3 November

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