Burma’s recent progress, however, is encouraging. As President U Thein Sein this week becomes the first Burmese leader to visit the US since 1966, it is important to acknowledge the role he has played in Burma’s process of democratization. Since taking office in March 2011, President Thein Sein has pushed to liberalize the country, including easing state control of the economy and media and freeing upwards of 600 political prisoners to show, in his words, “the love and sympathy of the state.”
It is not easy to laud authoritarian figures, particularly ones with pasts as troubling as President Thein Sein’s. But it is necessary to recognize the significance of such a figure voluntarily ceding some if his power. And in the face of long-standing and deeply ingrained national problems, engagement from both sides is critical.
It is difficult to imagine the shift to democracy in South Africa, for instance, without President F.W. de Klerk’s acknowledgment that his country’s practice of Apartheid was intolerable to the free world. Universal enfranchisement came only when white minority rule was abolished – and, along with it, President de Klerk’s political power.
Like President Thein Sein, President de Klerk did not start out a reformer. He supported segregated schools, was seen as a conservative and did not speak out against Apartheid. But in his first speech as president in 1989, he called for a “non-racist South Africa,” and swiftly began negotiations to end Apartheid, ultimately lifting the ban on the opposition party and releasing its leader, Nelson Mandela.
Together, the two men would go on to share the Nobel Peace Prize "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa." This unlikely and history-changing partnership could serve as a model for President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi as they work to bring democratic reforms to their own country.
At the United Nations this week, President Thein Sein will tout his regime’s recent reforms and call for an end to sanctions. In response, the international community should seek to strike a balance between rewarding his efforts and ensuring that reform continues.
In practice, this means easing some – but not all – sanctions, starting with those that encourage outside investment to create an economic infrastructure that will help a deeply underprivileged nation begin to build a foundation for self-sufficiency.
President Thein Sein’s past is hardly perfect, but his gestures towards freedom and human rights are a step in the right direction. No one would have expected de Klerk to win a Nobel Peace Prize before he assumed the presidency of South Africa. The best news for Burma would be if President Thein Sein took the world by similar surprise.

Harman, a former Democrat from Califronia, is director, CEO and president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, is retiring at the end of this Congress after serving three terms in the U.S. Senate.