Illustration by Brendan Monroe
Illustration by Brendan Monroe

Of all the tantalizing about-faces in Myanmar, the economic education of Aung San Suu Kyi may be the most important.

In June, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident shocked many on her first overseas trip after 23 years under house arrest. Suu Kyi warned investors about “reckless optimism” and the pitfalls her country holds for markets. Such comments upset Myanmar’s leaders and unnerved another Nobel laureate: economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Myanmar government adviser, who said she was being too pessimistic.

On her 17-day tour of the U.S., though, Suu Kyi is striking a rather different tone and supporting President Thein Sein’s reforms. Suu Kyi is playing coy about her sudden conversion, so let me offer my own theory. After careful thought and analysis, Suu Kyi realizes what Myanmar has on its hands: Mikhail Gorbachev.

It is early days for Myanmar’s version of perestroika, or restructuring, that Gorbachev unleashed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. There is much to be done to bring Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, out from behind its own Iron Curtain, and lots might go wrong. Not the least of which is a giant military-industrial complex looking over Thein Sein’s shoulder as he dismantles its reason for being and welcomes the unpredictable forces of democracy.

Suu Kyi’s Gorbachev

Suu Kyi now realizes what she may have in Thein Sein. He could be that rarest of authoritarian leaders who selflessly works to propel his people higher without clinging to power indefinitely and then, Gorbachev-style, steps aside.

Ahead of the 2015 election, Thein Sein’s agenda includes starting to build an economy from scratch; keeping foreign mining companies from raping his nation; managing Myanmar’s role as mediator among China, Japan and the U.S. in Asia; and tweaking the constitution so that Suu Kyi’s party can even run.

Why would someone likely to succeed Thein Sein three years from now want to get in his way? This is where Suu Kyi’s sudden affection for Thein Sein’s handiwork might come from. Let Thein Sein tend to the political hardware -- a credible parliament, an independent judiciary and central bank, a trusted financial system, fighting corruption, taking Myanmar’s human-rights record into the 21st century. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi can focus on the software -- the aspirations of Myanmar’s people.

Whether Suu Kyi gets to fulfill her destiny of leading Myanmar depends on the foundations being built today. Burmese should be proud that their peaceful transition to democracy stands in contrast to bloody uprisings in the Arab world that felled authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

And let’s not forget how much political courage it took for Thein Sein to hold talks with Suu Kyi. It requires bravery, too, to allow oneself to be eclipsed by a global celebrity who was portrayed by Michelle Yeoh in a Luc Besson film, “The Lady.” If Thein Sein was annoyed about being ignored by the paparazzi at the United Nations last week, he isn’t letting on.

Thein Sein’s audience is much fickler than that of Suu Kyi, who somehow gets a pass on ignoring the plight of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslims. His involves stern-faced trade officials in Washington and Geneva and ambitious generals at home. It also includes the likes of Alisher Ali and Kenneth Stevens, who personify the breed of investor arriving in Yangon.

Frontier Market

Hailing from the former Soviet Union, Ali, the chairman of Silk Road Finance, has a passion for investing in frontier markets, such as Mongolia. Ali has since set his sights on Myanmar. Earlier this year, he moved his wife and four children to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon.

“You can just feel the energy here,” Ali says. Adds Stevens, an American who runs Leopard Capital: “It’s hard to not be optimistic about Myanmar’s future. Let’s hope it stays on this path.”

This last part of Stevens’s comment is important. If foreign investors even begin to sense Myanmar’s restructuring is petering out or proving hollow, they will flee and take the jobs their money creates elsewhere. Thein Sein must craft the best investment law he can to ensure stability and prosperity at home and win the esteem of people like Stiglitz.

Suu Kyi is an icon -- a human treasure whose radiant smile melts the vilest dictators. Thein Sein lacks such charisma, and the global media have a knack of pushing him to the periphery. Yet Suu Kyi’s place in history depends on the success of Thein Sein policies now being fashioned out of the limelight.

Those who romanticize Suu Kyi often come back to a 1990 speech in which she said: “It’s not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

Suu Kyi may have found the exception to her famous dictum - - her very own Gorbachev.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Yangon, Myanmar, at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net