BANGKOK, Thailand — When Angelina Jolie was first building up her bonafides as a globe-trotting humanitarian, she looked to refugees who’d fled Myanmar’s brutal army.
That was 2002. Jolie knelt in bamboo huts with victims of a decades-old jungle war. In camps along the Thai-Myanmar border, she said her LA friends fretted she’d “come back needing therapy.” Still, she declared that “there’s a fight to be had ... to look after each other and right wrongs around the world.”
How times have changed.
On July 29, Jolie flew to Myanmar’s capital. She was greeted by a man on the other side of that still-burning jungle war. He is an ex-general named Shwe Mann who gained notoriety by leading bloody strikes along Myanmar’s eastern border — the same sort of offensives that created the refugee camps that Jolie visited.
Now that ex-general, one of Myanmar’s most powerful figures, is posting photos on Facebook of Jolie grinning by his side.
This unexpected turn of events is emblematic of modern Myanmar’s abrupt image makeover. Not so long ago, the West regarded Myanmar (also called Burma) as a tyrannical state controlled by men such as Shwe Mann.
Leaked US documents report that “like most Burmese field commanders, Shwe Mann utilized forced civilian porters, including women and children, on a massive scale during operations against Karen insurgents” in the late 1980s.
The Karen are a mountain-dwelling ethnic group in Myanmar’s east. Along with smaller ethnic groups, they fill up a string of refugee camps that Jolie has repeatedly visited. Some of them may be unnerved to see one of their most famous advocates shaking hands with someone who led sweeping attacks on their native lands.
“With all of these army people, retired or active, many of us feel we can never trust them. Not after what they did to us,” says Paul Sein Twa, a former refugee who now runs an organization titled Karen Environmental and Social Action Network.
“I don’t follow (Jolie’s) agenda closely,” he says. “But generally, our perspective is that helping refugees by going through government channels is very controversial.”
Hanging with ex-generals was not the purpose of Jolie's visit. She came as an ambassador with the UN Refugee Agency to meet “displaced people and youth” and tour a refugee camp in Myanmar's war-torn Kachin State near the border with China.
And she is hardly the only prominent person glad-handing with Shwe Mann.
In March, he scored an invite to the White House. Despite the 68-year-old's dark history, some Western diplomatic circles see him as a leader respected by hardliners yet capable — if given the chance — of speeding up Myanmar’s metamorphosis from tyranny to a freer nation. He’s also considered a front runner for the presidency in an upcoming election, which is promised to be the first legitimate poll in decades.
From a nation condemned and sanctioned, Myanmar is now depicted by the White House as an inspiring turnaround story. Hillary Clinton, who credits herself with speeding this reversal, has said it’s “sometimes hard to resist getting breathless” about Myanmar's progress.
But Myanmar remains mired in poverty, dysfunction and authoritarianism. Most Western diplomats are sticking to an optimistic refrain: holding hands with Myanmar’s powerful inner circle is worth the rewards — even if that means engaging with men who have bloody pasts.
By smiling alongside Shwe Mann, Jolie appears to be chiming in with that refrain.