President Thein Sein is genuinely committed to reform, says historian-writer Thant Myint-U. He expresses optimism that the dialogue the regime has initiated with Aung San Suu Kyi will give the country a new, more positive political direction.

Since March 2011, a series of subtle moves by the Myanmar government appear to foreshadow a major political transition towards the accommodation of pro-democracy forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The government, elected in November 2010 under a Constitution that Ms Suu Kyi does not accept — her party, the National League for Democracy boycotted the elections — is dominated by former military officials who were part of the junta that ruled Myanmar until last year, and civilians with links to the military. Although the exact nature of the transition is yet unclear, the Nobel laureate, who was released from nearly two decades of house arrest in October 2010, days before the election, has signalled a willingness to participate in the reforms initiated by the government.

In an interview by email from Yangon, Thant Myint-U, the author of a new book on Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, told Nirupama Subramanian that the political changes that are afoot will benefit his strategically located country and its people, who have suffered under the combined effects of prolonged military rule and international economic sanctions.

The grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, Dr. Thant was educated at Harvard, and Cambridge, where he received his PhD and taught British imperial and Asian history. He has also worked at the United Nations. He lives in Bangkok and travels frequently to his country.

The military-dominated Myanmar regime has made moves over the last few months that suggest a desire for legitimacy and broader acceptance: President Thein Sein met Aung San Suu Kyi, a thaw seems to be in the air. Is the regime about to give up its powers, or are these more tactical moves, meant to assuage the West, gain more international credibility, perhaps with a view to getting it to lift the sanctions?

The changes we are seeing are unprecedented and represent the biggest shift in Myanmar politics since the army takeover of 1962. The old junta has been abolished. The armed forces are no longer solely in charge. The two-decade long autocracy of Senior General Than Shwe has ended. There is an entirely new political system in place, one that divides power between a quasi-civilian government, the armed forces, and a partially elected parliament. Major economic reforms are underway. All this in addition to the dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the new President U Thein Sein, the release of over 200 political prisoners, and the emergence of the freest media environment since 1962. There are of course huge problems still, and Myanmar is far from being a democracy. But it would be foolish to dismiss the transitions taking place as unimportant.

And to see them as taking place because of a desire to gain more international credibility or even seeing sanctions would be to miss the point entirely. They are taking place because everyone in their right mind realises that the country has to enter the 21st century and that a military dictatorship is both unsustainable and inimical to the interests of the overwhelming majority. Politics starts at home, even in Myanmar.

How did you read the meeting between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein? Is Ms Suu Kyi now prepared to make a compromise with the regime?

It was an extremely welcome development and needs to be seen as part of President Thein Sein's overall efforts towards political reconciliation. I think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has long been prepared to compromise, as long as she believed she was not being hoodwinked in some way or lured into a trap. Her meeting with U Thein Sein was important in convincing her that he was genuinely committed to reform. I don't think anything other than a face-to-face meeting would have had that effect.

If the compromise involves her accepting a position within the framework of the 2008 constitution which she has strongly opposed as undemocratic, is there a risk that she might lose political credibility, much like Benazir Bhutto did when she made a deal with Musharraf in 2007?

There is still no independent polling but I would guess that the vast majority of Burmese would like to see compromise and political reconciliation and, most of all, effective policies for lifting our country out of poverty in into the modern world. Constitutions can be amended. There is absolutely no risk that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would lose her credibility for seeking a way to work together with the current leadership. The risk for everyone is the opposite: not seeing and using the opportunities at hand.

What other political choices does Ms Suu Kyi have?

Well, she will always remain an important and influential figure, not only in Myanmar but internationally as well. I think her choice is really between continuing as the leader of a single political party, one that may seek political office again soon, in the coming by-elections, or being a sort of elder stateswoman, rising above party politics, and helping shepherd the democratic transition. It seems pretty clear though that she prefers the former to the latter role, at least for now.

How much of the reform agenda is driven by the military? After all, the elected government is really run by the military, isn't it? And if President Sein is driving it independently of the military, how far can he go without the military putting the brakes on it?

The old army leadership have retired. The current generals are all much younger men who have only recently been promoted up the ranks. At the same time, many of the current political leaders, including several key members of Parliament as well as government ministers, are former generals, their ex-bosses. The army is not at all in a decision-making role, except on issues directly related to its authority, such as the armed conflicts in the north and east. It's not impossible that the new army leadership will grow in confidence and will in future overshadow the elected government. But it's absolutely not the case today, and they are very much the junior partners in government.

Is the entire military on the same page over the reforms? What about General Than Shwe? How much of a role is he playing from his retirement?

Senior General Than Shwe has retired from all public office. That doesn't mean he couldn't be influential if he wanted to be, but there is zero evidence that he remains involved in day-to-day decision-making or that he's regularly in touch with the present political leadership. And the rest of the armed forces are in a clearly subordinate role to President Thein Sein and other key figures in government and parliament.

The military junta was never too bothered about legitimacy, either internally or globally, and even seemed to revel in its isolation. So what is pushing the regime to seek legitimacy with the people now? What has changed for it?

It's not about seeking legitimacy at all. There are two forces at work. The first are the dynamics intrinsic to the new political system, in which power is divided amongst many different institutions — the presidency, Parliament, local governments, the army, etc., and where each are looking for allies and new ideas. This gives much greater influence to other, non-governmental, groups and people than before. The second is the conviction of the President and many others besides that the country quite obviously has to move in a new direction and that a better life is possible for the Myanmar people — as simple as that.

The cancellation of the Myitsone dam that was being built by China was dramatic. Are you surprised the Myanmar regime took the risk of annoying a powerful neighbour like China? How did the government summon up the courage to kick the Chinese in the teeth on that one?

I would have been surprised a year ago, perhaps even six months ago, but not when it happened. It was just one of many developments that had taken place, that would have been unthinkable a year ago. The environmental movement in Myanmar is not inconsequential and the dam had attracted a lot of negative publicity. Myanmar newspapers, much more free to write what they pleased, were full of stories and interviews critical of the dam and environmental mismanagement generally. The decision to suspend work on the dam was taken not so much to send a signal to Beijing, but to demonstrate at home that this new government was willing to listen to popular concerns.

You are known to be critical of Aung San Suu Kyi. Why?

I've never criticised her or anyone else in public life in Myanmar. I respect her greatly and appreciate the very personal sacrifices she has made. But I've disagreed with her on the issue of western sanctions, which I believe have been incredibly counter-productive, worsened the lives of millions of poor people, weakened the democracy movement, and slowed the emergence of the sort of independent middle class on which any sustainable democratic transition will depend.

Would you say principles and idealism have no place in politics?

Yes, but Myanmar politics has long been only about one man's idealism against another. For years politics centered on the 1935 India Act and separation from India, then on independence, then only whether or not communism was the best way forward, and now on democracy as an ideal. Many were willing to go to prison or die for separation, for independence, for communism, for democracy. I'm not saying these things are not important. But Myanmar is a country where tens of millions of people are impoverished, in debt and without a proper livelihood or access to the most basic healthcare. Taking an idealistic stance and fighting for principles is fine, but then I would argue that the need to practically and urgently address the needs of the country's poorest is at least as important.

Your book has a provocative title — Where India meets China. Do you fear a new “great game” in Burma? How do people in Myanmar see the competition between its two big neighbours over its resources?

I'm not sure there's really a big competition between India and China over Myanmar's resources, which are significant, but still small relative to the size of India and China's growing economies. What's important is Myanmar strategic position, as southwest China's bridge to the Indian Ocean and as the country bordering a still unsettled Northeast India. India and China both border Myanmar, but we have to remember that this is a very new thing — throughout history, there were many other countries in between Myanmar and the centres of both Indian and Chinese civilisations and empires. Whether Myanmar benefits or not from its newly strategic position will depend very much on whether it can emerge over the coming years from decades of military rule and economic mismanagement. A well-governed Myanmar will be India and China's best neighbour.

Is India right in viewing its relations with Myanmar through a China prism?

It's impossible to ignore China's growing presence and influence in Myanmar. A Myanmar that is under Chinese domination will transform India's national security. But we're not there yet, far from it and I doubt any Myanmar government, given an option, will want to see this happen. And I'm not sure India views its relations primarily in this way. I think the desire for cooperation along the border has been at least as important in directing India's Myanmar policy. And here I would say that it's important to look beyond narrow security issues and appreciate that a democratic and prosperous Myanmar would transform prospects for the Northeast.

Do you think India could have built more goodwill with the people of Myanmar if it had not shelved its close association with Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement in order to engage with the junta?

Isolating Myanmar further would have been a disaster. I think it's absolutely correct that the Indian government states its support for democratic reform in Myanmar and it has done that repeatedly. But what's at least as important is that India aids measures to reduce poverty and develop the economy, through trade and investment that's good for both countries, that will neither fuel corruption nor destroy the environment, but will instead create jobs for ordinary people. India and Myanmar share such a rich history, there is much to gain for a far closer connection.

Correction

The intro to the story was corrected for an error on November 4, 2011