In 2012, the hopes for the Arab Spring began fading into cynicism as the world watched Syria descend into civil war, while the region's nascent democracies struggled with their newfound freedom. But, meanwhile, one of the most remarkable and unexpected political reversals of our time has unfolded on the other side of the globe: Burma, long among the world's most repressive dictatorships, began to reform under the leadership of two very unlikely allies.
For nearly 20 years, dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was sealed under house arrest by Burma's paranoid military junta, which had drawn an iron curtain over the country since 1962. Now she's a duly elected member of the country's parliament -- and it's partly thanks to reformist President Thein Sein, a former general often described as an awkward, bookish bureaucrat. To the astonishment of many, Thein Sein began loosening restrictions on free speech and opening the economy after coming to power in 2011. This year, as the United States restored diplomatic ties with Burma (which the junta renamed Myanmar in 1989) and eased travel and economic sanctions, his government curbed censorship of the media and freed hundreds of political prisoners.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the soft-spoken, iconic political activist whom devotees call simply "the Lady," may not seem like an obvious partner for Thein Sein, but she has become one by doing what few legends of her stature can: embracing the messy pragmatism of politics. Although Burma's struggles are far from over -- she has warned that international investment has been too rapid, and ethnic violence is escalating -- the willingness of both the Lady and the general to embrace short-term compromise and foster long-term reconciliation in what was only recently one of the world's most isolated countries is something to celebrate.
Fittingly, Aung San Suu Kyi finally was able to accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in June. She used the occasion to remind the world of those like her, who struggle in the most forlorn places: "To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity." It is a sentiment still felt from Aleppo to Havana, Pyongyang to Tehran, but also, as Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have shown, one that doesn't need to be permanent.