The Lady and the General

Meet the political odd couple driving democratic reform in Burma.

The most unlikely of political partners are driving the astonishing democratic transition in Burma. One of them is no surprise: Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspirational global icon who for recent generations has defined nonviolent struggle against oppression. The other, President Thein Sein, is an unassuming former general who rose to the senior ranks of the very military junta seen as responsible for Burma's decades of misery, but then had the courage to steer the country in a new direction. Neither sought this unusual pairing, but together they represent the most hopeful turn for Burma in half a century.

Burma before World War II served as one of the rice bowls of Asia, and its people aspired to the region's best standards of health, education, and prosperity. But the country's darker post-colonial legacies included bitter ethnic divides and an unfortunate role in the center of the neighborhood's Cold War intrigue, as the Soviet Union, China, and the United States each vied for strategic position and ideological cohorts. Following a 1962 coup, the military justified the decades of misrule to come by the need to hold the country together with whatever force necessary and resist any form of foreign domination -- real or imagined. The generals drove the country to ruin.

By 2009, there were few overt signs of any real change, but President Obama launched a tentative, exploratory effort to woo Burma out of its isolation. On my first visit, in early 2010, I met both Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, then the prime minister as well as No. 4 in the ruling junta. The contrast between the two could not have been greater. I was permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon at an old Russian-built hotel, a relic of Burma's Cold War ambivalence. She was delivered to the hotel from her solitary house arrest, and we talked for three hours about her hopes for a new Burma. She was predictably inspiring, reflecting a steely determination and optimism that contrasted sharply with the stark setting, and displayed a thorough grasp of international developments that belied her nearly two decades in isolation under house arrest. She described in detail her daily ritual of listening to the BBC World Service and Voice of America as a kind of preparation for the role she could then barely imagine -- but today is playing. The regime cropped her out of a photo of my visit published in the state-run newspaper.

I met Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, the remote new capital where the generals had abruptly sequestered themselves a few years earlier. Largely unresponsive to our offer for a meaningful dialogue, he and his fellow generals showed no sign of willingness to engage with Aung San Suu Kyi or implement any serious reforms. Thein Sein seemed an unlikely strongman, reserved and mild-mannered in his heavily starched olive-green uniform. But in that first meeting, with his careful military cadence and cautious manner, he gave no indication of any of the ideas of reform that have come to animate his time as president.

This past September, just three short years later, Aung San Suu Kyi stepped off a plane for her first visit to the United States in four decades, this time as a freely elected member of Burma's new parliament. She came both for a victory lap -- she was to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, among many other honors -- and to do the serious work of encouraging renewed Burmese links to and support from the international community. During her visit, Thein Sein arrived in the United States carrying a similar message, which he would deliver in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, the first by a Burmese head of state in decades, and in an official meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "The people and government of Burma have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reform process," he said. While in New York, he met privately with Aung San Suu Kyi, as they had several times previously in Burma. Their partnership is an unlikely one, but the symbolism of their encounter in New York was a powerful indication of the distance they, and their country, had covered.

Their relationship began with a dinner in the spring of 2011 prepared by Thein Sein's wife in the couple's modest home and presented under a painting of Aung San, Burma's revered independence leader and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Warily, tentatively, the two compared shared hopes for the country's rebirth. That first meeting set the stage for the breathtaking changes in Burma following the retirement in 2011 of the junta's geriatric strongman, Than Shwe. Thein Sein's government has since released hundreds of political prisoners; eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, and movement; established cease-fires with most insurgent ethnic groups; and launched a wobbly electoral process that eventually allowed Aung San Suu Kyi's once-banned opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to take legislative seats, 22 years after the junta ignored the party's stunning national election victory.

Many explanations have been offered for Burma's sudden opening -- from geopolitics to unrelenting global pressure -- but I believe the personal experiences of these two remarkable individuals have much to do with it. The U.S. government and key congressional allies stood resolutely with Aung San Suu Kyi and other Burmese freedom fighters through the darkest days of their struggle, and she knew we could be counted on to help Burma when the regime finally relented.

Thein Sein arrived at the need to overturn the old order by a very different path. His role as prime minister and designated face to the outside world brought him to regional capitals that decades earlier appeared as poor cousins to cosmopolitan Rangoon but now were thriving hubs of modernity. Burma's failure must have been manifest, and its status as a pariah state, increasingly an embarrassment for many countries in Southeast Asia, would have been painful to defend.

Sustaining reform's momentum will be difficult. Much will depend on getting others to follow the courageous example of Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein in setting aside bitter enmities and deep distrust for the common good. Their shared stake in a better future led both leaders to take off a uniform -- she the mantle of international sainthood and he the insignia of the military institution that brought him to absolute power. Having done so, they can now meet on equal terms, as citizen and patriot, striving and struggling together for a new Burma. Along the way, they are inspiring us all.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images


Why Birth Control Is Still a Big Idea

Contraceptives empower women -- and that's good news for the global health and development agenda.

I spent most of my time this year advocating for better access to family planning around the world. Early on, I told everybody who would listen that I wanted to help put contraceptives back on top of the global health and development agenda. Visiting women in developing countries, however, I realized that this framing didn't quite capture my message.

Contraceptives are tools, and the development agenda is an abstract construct. What was missing were human beings, the women across the world who have told me over and over again that having access to birth-control methods that work for them would change their futures. Now I tell people that I want to help put women at the center of global health and development work, and better contraceptives are one of their top priorities. Listening to women shouldn't still be a revolutionary idea in 2012, but it is.

When I visit family-planning wards at health clinics in African countries, there are always plenty of free condoms available. Condoms are vitally important, especially because they also help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. But there's a problem: The overwhelming majority of African women can't rely on condoms for birth control because their husbands refuse to use them.

In the same way that American women prefer contraceptive pills, which they don't have to negotiate with their partners, African women favor contraceptive injections over condoms. But because of supply constraints, supply-chain problems, and outdated public policies, these injections are frequently out of stock. To take one example, in Kaduna, Nigeria, a city of some 1.5 million people, there were 226 days last year when not a single public health clinic had injections available.

If you are focused simply on making sure contraceptives are available, you can stockpile condoms and call it a day. But if your goal is helping women build the lives they want for themselves and their families, the bar is higher.

In the United States, especially this year, any occasion when contraceptives and public policy overlap seems to be an excuse to fight about other issues -- abortion or the meaning of religious freedom, for instance. But the fact is, literally 99 percent of women in the United States who have had sex use birth control at some point in their lives. What our behavior (if not our rhetoric) tells me is that contraceptives matter to us. They certainly mattered to me. I was able to go to college and business school. I was able to have a rewarding career at Microsoft. And then Bill and I were able to decide how many children to have (three) and when to have them (each three years apart), which I believe made us better parents.

These are some of the same reasons that contraceptives matter to women in developing countries. Like all parents, they want their children to grow up healthy and go to school. Contraceptives don't do all this, of course. They are a single link in a long chain that includes proper nutrition, vaccines, clean water, productive farms, and high-quality public schools. But they are the first link, and they give parents a much better opportunity to complete the chain. As one young mother in Kenya told me, "I want to bring every good thing to my child before I have another."

There are convincing data showing the long-term impact of contraceptives. The leading study, ongoing in Bangladesh for the past 35 years, proves that people who have access to and education about contraceptives have a higher quality of life in almost every conceivable way than those who don't. They are healthier, less likely to die in childbirth, and less likely to have children who die. They are better educated, with sons and daughters who have more schooling. And they are more prosperous: Their households have more total assets, including land, livestock, and savings. On an even larger scale, economists have argued convincingly that the so-called East Asian economic miracle of the 1980s was due in large part to parents in the region deciding to have fewer children.

Contraceptives unlock one of the most dormant but potentially powerful assets in development: women as decision-makers. When women have the power to make choices about their families, they tend to decide precisely what demographers, economists, and development experts recommend. They invest in the long-term human capital of their families. They don't do it because they're worried about GDP; they do it because they're worried about their children's futures. But the two fit together beautifully.

Today I tell people that I want to help put women at the center of global health and development work -- and that contraceptives are one of the best ways to do that. Because when women everywhere have the power to achieve their goals, they will be doing the majority of the work of development by themselves.