Burma's president Thein Sein is a retired army general engaged in what military strategists regard as the most risky and difficult field manoeuvre of all - a retreat to extricate forces from an untenable position.
Thein Sein, who made a four-day official trip to Australia this week, is reversing the failed policies imposed by his country's last leader to visit, General Ne Win, back in 1974 and military dictators were seen as South-East Asia's saviours from communism.
By releasing political prisoners and inviting democracy symbol Aung San Suu Kyi into mainstream politics, his promise of fair elections vindicated by her party's sweep of by-elections last April, and negotiating truces with most ethnic insurgents, Thein Sein has put his fellow generals on notice.
At the same time, his government is trying a 180-degree turn in economic strategy, from the isolationist "Burmese road to socialism" introduced by Ne Win, towards the capitalist model that has helped neighbours like Thailand leap far ahead in prosperity.
When first installed two years ago, Thein Sein was an international pariah. The outgoing military junta had frogmarched in a new constitution, then held elections manipulated for a win by their Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with 25 per cent of the seats in the national and regional legislatures reserved for military appointees as a further safeguard.
Now he's the celebrity of Asia, invited to Washington DC and then hosting US President Barack Obama in Yangon (Rangoon). As well as embracing multi-party electoral politics, Thein Sein sent a big geo-political signal by suspending an unpopular Chinese hydro-electric dam project.
Burma is now one of the hottest "emerging" economies. Investment bankers, corporate scouts, development agency officials, charities and would-be intermediaries are packing into Yangon.
Wealthy tourists from Europe are filling hotels, keen to see the old Burma "before it is ruined by development", their consciences cleared by the lifting of sanctions.
With Australia, Thein Sein is bringing his education and science ministers, signalling an interest in training. In Canberra, there are deliberations about opening ties with Burma's military to encourage reform - by exchanging attaches at embassies, inviting officers to defence colleges, and even supporting Burma's inclusion in peacekeeping operations.
But a pivotal test now looms.
The parliament elected under the generals' rules at the end of 2010 is now close to halfway through its five-year term. Last year's by-elections suggest that if the next election, due about November 2015, is free and fair, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy will push the USDP aside.
Suu Kyi, who turns 68 in June, has declared she will be aiming for the presidency. However, the generals' constitution bars from that office anyone who has been married to a foreigner - Suu Kyi's husband was the late English academic Michael Aris.
A constitutional amendment requires a 75 per cent backing in parliament - and the military has 25 per cent of seats.
Still, the prospect is no doubt unnerving for army officers with wealth obtained from murky deals and potential war crime prosecutions from vicious campaigns against ethnic minority armies.
"Are the reforms irreversible?" asks the Australian Defence Force Academy's Morten Petersen. "No, they're not."
Thein Sein has two ways to placate the hardliners in the army.
One is to try to deliver sufficient popular benefit from economic reforms by late 2015 for some genuinely voluntary support to flow back to the USDP.
The other is to draw Suu Kyi into the compromises of government, so that her image as Burma's saviour is tempered.
On the economic side, the government has carried out a basic stabilisation. Inflation is now low, the previous half-dozen foreign exchange rates unified, various slush funds put into foreign exchange reserves, and growth is over six per cent a year.
For the first time, the military has to account to parliament for its budget.
Yet the question is open whether citizens, a quarter of them below the poverty line, will feel life has got much better.
The new single exchange rate is widely seen as overvalued, holding back Burma from competing with Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia in manufacturing, and benefiting cronies with import licences.
Winston Set Aung, the deputy planning minister, says policy-makers are wracked with debate. Some say change is moving too fast, while others say it's too slow.
"The problem is, all of them are correct," he said at a Burma conference at the Australian National University on Friday.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi's saintly image has been a little tarnished by her involvement with the government. Her cautious comments on the violence against hated settlers from Bangladesh, the Rohingya, are seen as "disingenuous" by some analysts.
She was heckled last week by villagers protesting against a Chinese copper mine on their land.
While that might reduce her popularity with some voters, it will raise her stocks with the military.
There's no sign she would seek retributive justice against the generals who kept her prisoner for two decades.
"The most we can hope for is a truth commission," Ian Holliday, a professor at Hong Kong University, told the ANU conference.
Hamish McDonald, Journalist in Residence at the ANU's College of Asia and the Pacific, has closely followed change in Burma.