When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced this week an easing of investment sanctions on Burma, she made sure she first praised President Thein Sein for his reform efforts before congratulating democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on her election victory.
It was only logical that Thein Sein be given priority. One of the biggest fears of Western governments is that Burma would slide back to harsh military rule if he is out of the saddle during the country's vulnerable democratic transition.
Aung San Suu Kyi may be gaining bouquets for steering her National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in last Sunday's by-elections, but she could not have made her election debut without Thein Sein’s help.
It was he who had pushed for the NLD to be re-registered after it was banned by the previous military junta, paving the way for the party to contest in elections for the first time since 1990, when the NLD's poll victory was not recognized by the military rulers.
But Thein Sein remains vulnerable.
The 66-year-old ex-army general, who has a pacemaker in his chest to help control abnormal heart rhythms, is caught in a power struggle between his reform-minded camp and that of the hardliners.
The trouncing received by the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) at the hands of the NLD in the by-elections is expected to result in Thein Sein coming under increasing pressure from the hardliners, led by the country's first vice-president, Tin Aung Myint Oo.
"Successful transitions need strong figures and good leadership, and Thein Sein, even though he's not assertive, has come out as a leader and somebody that the people really like," Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. chargé d'affaires to Burma, told RFA.
"I don't think the conservatives are comfortable with the extent of the NLD victories," said Clapp, now a senior adviser at the New York-based Asia Society.
Four of the 42 seats captured by the NLD were in Naypyidaw, the country's capital and bastion of the military and government. Ironically, one of the seats—in Pobba Thiri—vacated by Tin Aung Myint Oo, was captured by a popular hip-hop singer and ex-political prisoner Zay Yar Thaw.
"What's really quite amusing to me is that the first vice-president, who is probably the arch conservative in the government, was elected [in November 2010] from the constituency in Naypyidaw that now has a hip-hop, former political prisoner as representative," Clapp said.
"So that tells you something about what is happening in the minds of the Burmese people—that once they are released from the restrictions, once they begin to feel a sense of release, they go over to the other side. This is going to be a source of tension within the government as you can imagine."
The situation cannot be more delicate.
The true test of whether the army is really ready to step back for good will come in three years, when Burma is supposed to hold national elections for all seats, potentially allowing the NLD or other opposition parties to actually control parliament, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asian expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.
"Before that time, the government will have to make good on other difficult promises, including further opening up the media landscape after years of harsh press laws, creating a more level playing field for all political parties, and dealing with the many simmering ethnic insurgencies," he said.
The government allowed the by-elections—aimed at filling 45 parliamentary seats vacated by legislators who joined the administration—partly because the shift in seats within the 664-member parliament does not yet threaten the power of the military and its civilian allies, he said.
"What's more, Suu Kyi and Thein Sein do not hold enough sway over their supporters to ensure a successful reform path," Kurlantzick said.
What is especially daunting is that Burma is confronting the profound challenge of moving away from 50 years of harsh, haphazard authoritarian rule while also grappling with the need to resolve the multiple aggravated ethnic conflicts that have festered for decades, said Thomas Carothers, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Trying to work simultaneously through two interrelated processes of the distribution of power—democratization at the core of the political system and greater regional autonomy in sizable parts of the country—will be extremely difficult," he said.
"It is a bit like trying to drive across a narrow, badly paved bridge with steep drops on either side, while at the same time struggling to stop a fight with a whole set of angry passengers inside the car," Carothers said.
Sitting on the fence
Burmese by nature are pretty conservative and many, including in the military and the civil service, are seemingly sitting on the fence as reforms take shape.
"There is only a small group of 'real conservatives' and 'real reformers,'" Clapp said.
"There are probably a lot of people wondering whether this reform is really the right thing, but if it tends to produce real results and things get better and there is no instability and if the country begins to move forward and people see that it is working, then it isolates the real conservatives and makes it harder for them to sabotage things," she explained.
Thein Sein has only mixed results in his push for change that has seen, among other reforms, a release of political prisoners, relaxed media censorship, and a managed float of the kyat currency.
"The reforms that have been most dramatic are the ones that were done rather precipitously, and it's not clear whether they will hold," Clapp said, citing as an example Thein Sein's announcement last year suspending the controversial U.S. $3.6 billion Chinese-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam.
The project, at the head of the Irrawaddy River in Burma's northern Kachin state, faced strong opposition from Aung San Suu Kyi, environmental groups, and ethnic Kachin rebels.
Lobbying groups are still wary because Thein Sein has said he is suspending the dam's construction only for the term of his office, which ends in 2015. In addition, there are groups within the administration believed to be trying to put the project back on track with the Chinese, sources say.
Thein Sein is also facing an uphill battle trying to forge peace with ethnic groups, especially the Kachin rebels.
While negotiations are under way, army abuses against ethnic minorities continue and the armed forces have not changed their abusive behavior in ethnic conflict areas, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, said.
Thein Sein in December ordered an end to military attacks in Kachin state, telling the army to shoot only in self-defense against rebels. But the rebels say the troops on the ground have flouted the orders, leading some to question the president’s ability to rein in the military.
Government troops have been accused by Human Rights Watch of pillaging and burning homes in Kachin state, torturing civilians during interrogations, and raping women in villages.
The hardliners appear to be behind moves to thwart the peace-forging efforts.
The government group that is negotiating with the Kachin rebels is led by Vice-President Tin Aung Myint Oo, the country's leading hardliner.
Some foreign experts believe the group has been richly rewarded by Chinese companies which are worried their projects in Kachin state may be shelved by any peace deal.
"The group may be working against the president and thwarting his efforts," one expert said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On the economic front, while Thein Sein's administration has initiated some encouraging reforms, notably the rationalization of currency exchange and reform of the banking system, there is still uncertainty.
"It remains to be seen whether it can implement changes that would challenge the core prerogatives of the existing ruling establishment, an establishment whose economic approach defines the concept of crony capitalism," Carothers, the Carnegie expert, said.
"So political opening? Yes. Economic reform? Likely. Democratic transition? Too early to tell."