Deep in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, the rhythms of Kyonku village echo from another century. Oxen and buffalo plow the paddies; women in sarongs smoke pipes and swat mosquitoes, which can carry malaria or dengue. Decades ago, ethnic Karen insurgents, one of dozens of tribal militias that battled Burma's long-ruling military regime, prowled the hills. Today the Karen rebels have laid down their arms. Instead, wild elephants roam, strolling after sunset and occasionally charging villagers in a fury of tusks.
The wooden house in Kyonku where Burma's 67-year-old President, Thein Sein, grew up still stands, a creaky time capsule in a country largely preserved in amber. Thein Sein's father wove mats and hefted river cargo to make ends meet. The family was poor, like so many in then British Burma a category that still includes one-third of Burmese. Attending university was unaffordable. But Thein Sein passed the test for the Defense Services Academy, launching, in 1965, a 45-year military career that ended when he retired as the country's fourth-ranking general and then assumed the civilian presidency in March 2011. An isolated country officially known as Myanmar, Burma is now navigating a path between military dictatorship and democratic governance, and this quiet son of the delta is in charge.
Today, Thein Sein's nephew runs a small shop in Kyonku next to the President's childhood home, selling bottles of palm toddy and the betel that stain Burmese smiles crimson. The nephew's youngest daughter has never met her famous relative, who now lives in Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, with its eight-lane avenues and grandiose ministry buildings. But the 6-year-old has a request for her granduncle. "Please ask him to buy me a car," Su Myat Yi tells me, as the sole electric bulb in her house flutters, then dies. It seems a ludicrous request in a dirt-path village with no running water. Politicians anywhere, from dictatorships to democracies, divert goodies back to their hometowns. But in a sign of the President's clean image in this chronically corrupt nation, Thein Sein's ascension to power has not changed Kyonku. Still, a Burmese girl can dream. "A nice big car," she says. "With air-conditioning."
A Remarkable Journey
Kyonku is a world away from Naypyidaw, which was purpose-built to the ruling generals' specifications and unveiled in 2005. The presidential palace tries to take its architectural cues from Versailles but has ended up looking like something the Real Housewives of New Jersey might have designed. Its 100 or so rooms overflow with orchids and are lit by exuberant chandeliers. Sitting in a gilded throne that could easily fit three heads of state, Thein Sein seems out of place by far the least prepossessing force in a receiving hall filled with ministers and attendants. At ease, his expression resembles that of a turtle digesting a lettuce lunch: mild, blinking, contemplative. He has none of the gravitas of a strongman. "I never dreamed of becoming President," he tells me during a rare interview before deflecting further. "There are other qualified people." He trails off into a round of noisy throat clearing. Thein Sein is a former junta henchman better known for listening, a leader still trying to find his voice.
On the slumped shoulders of this slight man rests the future of Burma. So do the world's hopes that a land of nearly 60 million people (not to mention the planet's largest population of domesticated elephants) can pull off a democratic transition and serve as a model for other emerging nations. Compared with the explosive revolutions of the Arab Spring, Burma's transformation has been far more peaceful and all the more surprising. Just a couple of years ago, Burma was a global pariah, an outpost of tyranny in the U.S. government's view because of the junta's often murderous disregard for its people. Yet members of that same paranoid military regime are engendering the liberalizations remaking Burma. For once in the political tumult of recent years, reforms have come not from an angry outpouring on the streets but from the nexus of power.
The kind of historic change unfolding in Burma is usually led by confident and charismatic individuals, like China's Deng and South Africa's Mandela. But, down to his gray pallor and balding pate, Thein Sein is more Burma's Gorbachev, a diffident, seemingly colorless apparatchik whose accomplishments could far eclipse the man himself. "We are in the midst of an unprecedented period of transition," Thein Sein tells TIME, "from military to democratic government, from armed conflict to peace and from a centralized economy to a new, market-oriented economy." Any one of those shifts could take decades. Burma is attempting all at the same time.