May 20, 2013

President Thein Sein of Burma, the former general who President Obama hopes is leading a transition from dictatorship to democracy in his Southeast Asian nation, is not an imposing figure, and the longer you talk with him, the less imposing he seems.

That, at least, was my impression after interviewing him for about 45 minutes Sunday, along with my Post colleague Anne Gearan, on the eve of Thein Sein’s Monday meeting with Obama in the White House.

Burmese President Thein Sein attends a town hall event at the Voice of America in Washington on May 19. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Here is a typical exchange. As background, you need to know that the leader of democracy forces in Burma, a country of some 50 million people, is a woman named Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades under house arrest but as part of the transition is now free and serving in parliament. You also need to know that she was married to a British scholar, now deceased, and had two sons with him; and that, to make sure this popular woman never became president, the junta inserted a clause into the constitution barring from the presidency anyone married to a foreigner or with foreign-born children.

We tried to find out whether the president believes that clause should remain in effect. The conversation took place through an interpreter provided by the president, and I’ve abridged our questions.

Washington Post: Do you think the constitution should be changed to remove the provision that would exclude Aung San Suu Kyi from serving as president?

Thein Sein: With regard to the amendment of the constitution, there are provisions within the constitution for the amendment of the constitution. For the constitution to be amended, it needs to be discussed among the elected members of parliament. Secondly, the constitution that was adopted by the people needs the approval of the people to be amended.

Q: Yes, but I was asking your opinion. Do you think it should be amended?

A: My personal view is that the constitution can be changed. There is a process in the constitution for the amendment of the constitution, so I do not have a say.

Q: But your opinion does matter?

A: Actually, the amendment of the constitution is not directly related to the executive branch. It is within parliament. But I am myself a citizen of the constitution, [so] I am also related to the amendment of the constitution.

Q: So do you have an opinion about whether Aung San Suu Kyi should be allowed to run for president?

A: It is a normal process that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party can contest in the upcoming parliamentary election. [Daw is a title showing respect.]

Q: But as of now she would not be eligible to be president. Do you think that is correct or should it be changed?

A: As I said earlier, the amendment of the constitution depends on the members of parliament, and secondly will depend on the will of the people, because for the amendment we need the approval of the people. So I myself as a citizen of the country do not have any say on the amendment of the constitution.

At which point, defeated, we moved on to other subjects. Generally, though, we didn’t have much more success.

I asked, for example, why, after Thein Sein had promised last year to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office in Burma, permission had not yet been granted.

“We haven’t yet signed a memorandum of understanding,” he replied. “We are still considering.”

But last year you said you would, I pointed out. Does this mean you are reconsidering?

“As I said, we are considering, and we have to consider various circumstances,” the president replied.

I asked what the arguments against might be.

“We are not denying the opening of the office,” he replied. “But we are seriously considering about the pros and cons.”

Once again, I threw in the towel.

There’s an important riddle here. Western officials hope that Thein Sein, who has been in power for about two years, is bravely negotiating a treacherous path from the repressive regime he was once part of to a society in which people genuinely can choose their own leaders. Along this path, they believe, he has to battle hardliners who oppose change; corrupt businessmen and generals who fear exposure; reform advocates who may push too hard, too fast; ethnic and religious conflict; and rising expectations among ordinary citizens who believe political reform should quickly lead to economic improvement.

If so, his circumspection may be a clever tactic to keep everyone on board as reform moves forward. Alternatively, it could be an indication that the generals remains firmly in control and that Thein Sein is not free to express a view that might offend them. Or it might be that he hopes the reform path can stop somewhere short of true democracy — that Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, should never have the opportunity to run for president.

It’s impossible to tell from a 45-minute interview. But it is possible to walk out feeling less than entirely reassured.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.