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    Southeast Asia
     May 4, 2011

Man in the mirror in Myanmar
By Clifford McCoy

In his public speeches and early policy signals, newly appointed President Thein Sein has raised questions about Myanmar's political direction after last year's democratic election. While invoking the need for good governance and anti-corruption measures, words rarely if ever heard from previous military leaders, indications are Thein Sein will serve more as a figurehead for the country's former military supremo, Senior General Than Shwe, than a genuine democratic reformer.

 Thein Sein was chosen to be Myanmar's new president on February 4 in a secret ballot among three candidates in the new parliament. The runners-up, former lieutenant general Tin Aung Myint Oo and Shan politician Sai Mouk Kham, assumed the roles of vice presidents. The positions were made official with the official

dissolving of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta on March 30 and the swearing in of Thein Sein, two vice presidents and cabinet ministers the same day.

Thein Sein's rise to the top of Myanmar's new democratic configuration was relatively low-key and free from accusations of past corruption and human-rights abuses. This stems from his role as a military bureaucrat rather than a frontline fighter like his contemporaries and chief rivals, former general Thura Shwe Mann and lieutenant general Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo. ("Thura" and "Thiha Thura" are honorifics given to military officers for bravery in the field.)

Thein Sein's resume speaks to his military mindset. Born in the Irrawaddy Delta region in 1945, he began his military career as a student at the Defense Services Academy, from where he graduated in 1968. By the time of the 1988 pro-democracy protests, which the military finally brutally crushed, Thein Sein was a major in the 55th Light Infantry Division in Sagaing Division. He subsequently served as commander of the 89th Infantry Battalion near Kalay, also in Sagaing Division.

 In 1989, he attended the Command and General Staff College in Kalaw, Shan State. By 1991, he had climbed to the rank of colonel and 1st Grade General Staff Officer in the War Office under then Myanmar Armed Forces commander-in-chief, General Than Shwe. Thein Sein was subsequently promoted to brigadier general, but unusually remained as a general staff officer, a position usually reserved for lieutenant colonels and colonels. This likely reflected on the importance Than Shwe placed and still places on Thein Sein's loyalty.

Following these staff appointments, Thein Sein was briefly given command of the 4th Operations Control Command, a military formation equivalent to an infantry division, in Hmawbi, Yangon Division in 1995. He was then assigned to be commander of the Triangle Regional Command in 1996, a post located in the important tri-border area between China, Laos and Thailand where several ethnic insurgent groups operate. It is a center for narcotics trafficking. Thein Sein was in command during the 2001 border clashes with Thailand around the towns of Tachilek in Myanmar and Mae Sai in Thailand in 2001.

Thein Sein was moved into the upper echelons of power following the death of lieutenant-general Tin Oo, and several other senior generals in a helicopter crash in 2001. Promoted to adjutant general in the War Office, he was also brought into the SPDC's central ruling authority. By 2003, he had moved up to the junta's Secretary 2 position. After the arrest of powerful intelligence chief and prime minister general Khin Nyunt in October 2004, Thein Sein was elevated to Secretary 1, the fourth-most powerful position in the junta. In this position he was instrumental in organizing the National Convention, which would eventually devise the country's current constitution.

When prime minister General Soe Win was hospitalized for leukemia in April 2007, Thein Sein was appointed acting prime minister. The position became official after Soe Win died in October 2007. During this time, Thein Sein was promoted to lieutenant general and later general. In April 2010, Thein Sein resigned from the military with other senior officers who would eventually stand for election in line with a directive from Than Shwe. In the run-up to the November 2010 polls, Thein Sein led the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), widely viewed as the military's own political party.

Ties to the top
Thein Sein's rise despite his lack of real battlefield experience can be attributed to his close relationship with Senior General Than Shwe, for whom he has served as a close aide. Traditionally advancement to the top echelons of the military and the SPDC had been dependent on battlefield experience. The exception was Khin Nyunt, whose power was derived from his control of the extensive intelligence apparatus and the patronage of former dictator general Ne Win.

The choice of Thein Sein over other generals for president, especially the more senior Shwe Mann, may have as much to do with his more internationally acceptable cleaner image as it does his close relationship to Than Shwe. Thein Sein is not known to be associated with internationally sanctioned business groups or part of newly expanding political cliques.

Myanmar military officers and outside observers have described Thein Sein as being much less corrupt than his colleagues. His children are also less business inclined and free of the scandals that have plagued the offspring of Shwe Mann and other senior officers. His lack of long service at the frontline command has allowed him to sidestep accusations of direct involvement in human-rights abuses.

He has also by and large escaped criticism for recent repression. Although prime minister during the brutal suppression of the September 2007 "Saffron Revolution" led by Buddhist monks, the crackdown was widely seen as directed by Than Shwe and other generals.

 When the regime initially rejected international aid following the disastrous 2008 Cyclone Nargis, blame was placed more squarely on Than Shwe as SPDC chairman. Following the deal brokered by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary general Surin Pitsuwan to allow foreign aid and aid workers into the country. Thein Sein was appointed chairman of the relief coordinating committee and was point man for the internationally backed humanitarian efforts.

As the regime's representative at most international forums, including ASEAN meetings, he slowly emerged as the face of the regime. In 2009, Thein Sein became the first Myanmar leader to visit the United States since 1988, when he attended the 64th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. While widely seen as quiet, he has simultaneously come across as confident and persuasive as a staunch defender of the regime.

That all said, it's not clear that he has the power or inclination to lead a meaningful political transition. Thein Sein has suffered for some time from heart disease and relies on a pacemaker. He had previously asked to be allowed to retire due to his health conditions and age. Some analysts have already questioned whether he will be able to serve out his full five-year term.

 Five years, however, may be all Than Shwe needs to establish his brand of "disciplined democracy", where the military effectively controls parliament and the executive. A one-term president would also allow Than Shwe to groom an adequate successor, while at the same time retaining enough behind-the-scenes power to control both the political process and the military. It would also allow him enough control to avert a putsch similar to the one he carried out against an aging and increasingly disempowered Ne Win in 2002.

Thus Thein Sein will likely serve more as the public face of the government while Than Shwe continues to pull strings from the shadows. The newly formed Supreme State Council, which Than Shwe chairs and is ostensibly advisory in its role, is the most concrete manifestation of this new ruling arrangement.

The eight-member body is made up entirely of current and former senior military officers, all of whom were members of the recently dissolved SPDC, and is expected to be the final power in the country. Than Shwe recently resigned from his position as commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces, handing over power to General Min Aung Hlaing, who was sworn in on March 30. But his leadership over the State Supreme Council will ensure that he retains final say over the military.

As president, Thein Sein also chairs the National Defense and Security Council, the 11-member grouping of senior officials called for in the 2008 constitution that controls the military and thus will largely determine policy. Thein Sein is also a member of the State Supreme Council. Both councils have the ability to overrule both the cabinet and parliament.

Rivals in the wings
Thein Sein's role as president, however, does not apparently sit well with all the generals. Shwe Mann may be unhappy with his position as speaker of the lower house, which puts him below Thein Sein, formerly his subordinate in the SPDC. There is also believed to be tension between Thein Sein and vice president Tin Aung Myint Oo, who is reportedly unhappy with not being chosen as president.

Both Shwe Mann and Tin Aung Myint Oo are seen as more ambitious, and corrupt, than Thein Sein. Both are noted for their strong involvement in business, particularly through their relations to prominent businessmen such as Tay Za, and for lending support to the business activities of their children. Their ambition, however, make them unsatisfactory choices for a dictator bent on remaining in power from behind the scenes.

While it is possible that he could assume more power as time goes on, Thein Sein will assure that the machinery of government moves according to the dictates of Than Shwe. To date, Thein Sein has shown little sign of being reform-minded. He is also unlikely to push for stepped up dialogue aimed at national reconciliation with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi or ethnic groups.

It is early days for Thein Sein's administration, but his three highly scrutinized policy speeches to date are as notable for their omissions as their pronouncements.

In his inaugural speech to parliament and his new cabinet, Thein Sein made it clear that building a modern army was a critical task. He also pronounced that health and education would be improved to international standards. Myanmar's official budget for 2011/2012 was set by the outgoing SPDC and gave the lion's share of funding to the military while health and education remained low fiscal priorities.

Thein Sein also expressed in his speech to parliament that fighting corruption and bribery would be a priority. Many read this as a sop to the international community, especially prospective foreign investors. Corruption has become so endemic in Myanmar that it is unlikely much headway can be made without the kind of institutional reform and accountability that would surely be vetoed by the other generals who have greatly and corruptly profited from the current system.

He gave a second speech to the Special Project Implementation Committee, which Thein Sein chairs, on April 22. In that presentation, the president talked about the need for development, continuing infrastructure projects started by the SPDC and improving agriculture. However, few concrete policy aims were outlined, making the speech similar to those given in past years by ineffectual generals.

In an April 24 speech to the Central Committee for Progress of Border Areas and National Races, which Thein Sein also chairs, he said the government must convince ethnic minority groups of the government's good intentions. Stressing the need for national unity, he said this was necessary to ensure cooperation with development efforts and loosen ties with neighboring countries, likely referring to China and Thailand. He did not, however, mention the military's ongoing operations against ethnic Karen and Shan insurgents or the need to restore broken ceasefires with several other ethnic-based insurgent movements.

In a move that could indicate a new role for technocrats in policy decisions, Thein Sein recently appointed a presidential advisory board of three committees consisting of three members each to assist him with political, economic and legal matters. In a surprise move, the new economics committee included U Myint, a noted economist and close friend of Suu Kyi. This may mark a change from the failed military-devised economic policies of the past, but it is still too early to determine how much influence the advisors may have.  

During the next five years of Thein Sein's presidency he is expected to preside over Myanmar's hosting of the 2013 Southeast Asian Games and the hoped for chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014. The generals seem to believe that with the elections and a new democratic government they finally have the credentials for a full-fledged seat at the international table. Unless Thein Sein can prove that he is his own man and his reform promises genuine, those credentials should and will remain in doubt.

Clifford McCoy is a freelance journalist. 

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

15 minutes of fame for Myanmar MPs
(Mar 23, '11)

Counterpoint on Myanmar's transition (Mar 17, '11)


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