05/24/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

Can Burma Take a Lesson From George Washington?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Burma's President Thein Sein made a surprising pilgrimage this week to Mount Vernon to lay a wreath on the tomb of George Washington, raising the question what the former general might learn from America's first president?

The fate of Burma's 60 million people hangs in the balance. That's roughly the population of California and Texas combined, but with vast riches of rubies and heroin. And then there's that highly strategic location next door to China.

The unlikely key to Burma's future is the placid and poker-faced Thein Sein (thayn sayn). Only recently, he was part of the military junta that made Burma a prison state and renamed it Myanmar. Thein Sein surprised the world by taking steps to open the county's markets, media, and political process. The man with the personality of a pharmacist suddenly was being hailed as an Asian Gorbachev.

This week, Thein Sein made history with the first state visit in nearly 50 years to America's capital. He met at the White House with President Obama, who thanked him for the reforms that have already been made -- but cautioned there was still much work to be done and that violence against religious minorities must end. The implacable Thein Sein listened without changing expression.

In his free time, Thein Sein went to Mount Vernon to see the home of the American Founding Father that he had read about -- and smiled more broadly for cameras than at any other point in his trip. His pilgrimage to Mount Vernon became an unexpected leitmotif as he sat down for a power dinner with American business leaders.

Top executives from Boeing, GE, Ford, Proctor and Gamble, Chevron, MasterCard and other FORTUNE 500 companies gathered in the lordly flag room of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for drinks and dinner with Thein Sein. Burma's economy is expected to grow at a rate of six percent this year and American corporations were courting a share. As an hors d'oeuvre, GE announced it would open two offices in Burma in coming months, one in the old colonial capital Rangoon and one in the military-built capital Naypyidaw. GE had already become the first American company to invest in the former pariah state, signing deals to provide medical equipment to hospitals. The conglomerate expects to do a half a billion dollars in annual revenue in Burma in the next few years.

Derek Mitchell, the U.S. Ambassador to Burma/Myanmar, made special note in his dinner remarks of Thein Sein's visit to Mount Vernon, turning the pilgrimage into a political allegory: "I know you have read the story of those early days and appreciate that at our birth, the future of our democratic experiment was not clear or inevitable. Political divisions grew among former colleagues, rising expectations created social and economic crises, even the military got restless.

"But it was Washington, a former military man, who took the long view, who understood his place in history and thus was mindful that every step he took and every word he spoke set a precedent for what the new nation would be about, not just in the near term, but the long term," Mitchell said.

The American ambassador added pointedly: "Washington saw the inherent value of a military under civilian control for the health and success of democracy."

The message that the Burmese military needs to ease its choke-hold on the fledgling Parliament was not lost on the audience, but again, Thein Sein was impassive. The only surprise in his own remarks was that he spoke in English and his hosts had provided translation earpieces for the business leaders. Thein Sein invited the executives to invest in Burma and promised more accountability, transparency, a level playing field, and arbitration systems in line with international standards. It was what they wanted to hear.

Thein Sein went home with some special souvenirs:

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has led efforts to impose tough economic sanctions on Burma for years, called for the relaxation of the sanctions.
  • A Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) was signed to lead to more bilateral commerce.
  • The White House publically referred to his country as Myanmar, the military's preferred name. It was a courtesy that may lead to a more formal change;
  • And President Obama reaffirmed that the prestigious Fulbright academic program and Peace Corps program would be expanded to Burma.

But human rights activists protested at every stop during Thein Sein's visit like accusing shadows. They complained the government is dragging its feet on 11 human rights commitments made last year. They reminded reporters that humanitarian organizations remain without full access to Kachin State in northern Burma, where armed conflicts with the Burmese army have displaced over 80,000 people. In eastern Burma over 400,000 more people are displaced from decades of civil war. In Arakan State in western Burma, more than 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims remain in displaced person camps, lacking adequate shelter and humanitarian aid.

At the dinner, even those who gave Thein Sein credit for opening the door to change expressed worry he will be able to deliver on his promises. The presidency in Burma is weak by design; Thein Sein must preside with the concurrence of a Supreme Council of generals.

During his American visit, he scarcely mentioned Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has allied with him in making reforms, but is a rival for the affections and votes of the Burmese people.

In an uncomfortable exchange with The Washington Post editorial board, Thein Sein refused to say whether he favored changing the constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run for President in 2015 elections, which would be a positive signal. He also hedged whether he will allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office in Burma, saying it was still bring considered, even though he said a year ago he would approve it.

As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might say, there are still more unknowns than knowns about Thein Sein as a history maker. What we do know is this: He was born in the rice-growing Delta region to a poor farming family. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in military college and was known to read and write short stories. He rose steadily through the military ranks during his 40-year career and was valued for his calm, pragmatic manner. He is considered to be less corrupt than previous rulers. He turned 68 in April and has a heart condition that is regulated by a pacemaker.

Kurt Campbell, the former Assistant Secretary of State who helped broker the American opening with Burma, describes Thein Sein as "modest, cerebral, subtle, watchful." Other diplomats at the Chamber of Commerce dinner pointed out that however ragged the process, Thein Sein's government has taken more steps toward political reform in the last three years than the previous military regimes took in decades. While remaining closely connected to those who wish to keep control, Thein Sein generally is a voice for progress. Three years ago, who could have imagined a Burmese leader calling for rule of law and protection for the environment? Getting there is Burma 2.0.

The Obama administration is banking that engagement now with the Myanmar leaders will lead to more reforms as the country evolves. As President Obama put it during his trip to Burma earlier this year, "I don't think anybody's under any illusion that Burma has arrived, that they're where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we'd be waiting an awful long time."

A series of decision points will soon tell whether Burma means business: Will the military-dominated Constitution be liberalized to allow more inclusion? Will cease-fires with ethic groups be honored? Will more political prisoners be released? Will serious efforts be made to tackle drug trafficking?

In particular, American businesses will be watching carefully to see who gets the new contract to operate the Rangoon airport. Will the deal to upgrade and operate the airport -- worth a billion dollars over 30 years -- go to an American consortium that includes Boeing and McKinsey? Or the powerful Burmese conglomerate whose founder is on U.S. sanctions list for corruption? Or a Chinese firm connected to the former military regime?

Perhaps the Americans should keep nudging Thein Sein, what would George Washington do?

Rena Pederson is former speechwriter at the U.S. Department of State and Burma commentator.