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 many 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 after sunset, 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. The family was poor, like so many in then British Burma--a category that still includes one-third of Burmese. Attending college 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 now also known as Myanmar, Burma has been navigating a path between military dictatorship and democratic governance, and this quiet son of the delta is in charge.
Kyonku is a world away from Naypyidaw, the new Burmese capital, where the President lives. Unveiled in 2005, Naypyidaw was purpose-built to the ruling generals' specifications, replete with eight-lane avenues and extravagant buildings. 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. 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. "I must admit that 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. He 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 ruling junta's often murderous disregard for its people. Yet it was members of that paranoid military regime who catalyzed the liberalizations now remaking Burma. For once, political change came not from an angry outpouring on the streets but from the nexus of power. "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.