Thein Sein: the quiet man who opened Myanmar to the world

Thein Sein: the quiet man who opened Myanmar to the world

Aung San Suu Kyi may not be Myanmar's leader, but it has come a long way

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Thein Sein during a press conference at the presidential office in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 2012
Photo: EPA

When he became Myanmar's leader five years ago Thein Sein was dismissed as a junta (military government) puppet - but as he prepares to hand power to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, the quiet ex-general can also claim credit for steering a peaceful political change that has stunned the world.

President Thein Sein, who spent almost half a century climbing the military’s ranks, made way yesterday for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and her proxy president Htin Kyaw.

Htin Kyaw (L), Myanmar's new president, shakes hands with his predecessor Thein Sein during an inauguration ceremony in Naypyitaw on March 30, 2016.

They will form the Southeast Asian nation's first elected civilian government in generations, marking an extraordinary new chapter for a society which has been chained for decades by military rule. 

Thein Sein's regime ruled over sweeping reforms that pushed further than many in the country of 51 million people had dared to dream possible.

But the 70-year-old's record is far from clean in a nation where the military still has a lot of political and economic power and there are many complaints.

Historic elections last year were the first chance in decades for Myanmar’s people to choose their own rulers - and Suu Kyi's party won easily.

Yet Myanmar’s people remain cautious.

"People hoped for more changes, but they (the army) just changed their  uniforms," said Yi Yi, a 59-year-old lawyer in Yangon.

Unlikely reformer 

Seen as absolutely loyal to junta senior general Than Shwe, little dramatic change was expected from Thein Sein when he was named president in March 2011.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Photo: Agence France-Presse

Independent analyst Richard Horsey said he was "a little bit grey" to begin with and many people just thought he was a yes man for the former strongman.

"I think people were very surprised when that wasn't necessarily the case,” he told said.

As reformers and hardliners tussled for position in his government, senior figures approached Thein Sein and urged real change, convincing him "to come off the fence," Horsey added.

Within months Thein Sein broke with the old military approach, holding his first meeting with Suu Kyi and suddenly stopping a multi-billion dollar Chinese-backed dam in northern Kachin state - a rare push back against the strong neighbour.

His government freed hundreds of political prisoners, lifted censorship, and launched talks with multiple armed ethnic groups who have spent years fighting for greater independence.

Reforms were rewarded with the lifting of most Western sanctions, sparking a flood of foreign investment to the poor nation.

The secretive men in green have never publicly revealed the exact motivation for the dramatic changes.

 But observers say the junta recognised the country was in bad condition compared to its neighbours, its over-reliance on China and the military's sharp fall in popularity with Myanmar’s people after several mass uprisings.

Old habits

A son of farmers, born in a small village in the southern Irrawaddy Delta, Thein Sein attended a famous military academy and eventually climbed to the top ranks of the junta.

Thein Sein never fully stepped outside the military that moulded him.

He emerged as a crucial force behind Myanmar's roadmap for "disciplined  democracy" and a constitution that gifts the army a quarter of parliament's seats and control over three key security ministries. 

The charter also blocks Suu Kyi from the presidency because her sons are British.

There have been other signs that Thein Sein's administration was unwilling to abandon the greedy repressiveness of the junta years.

Scores of protesters have been arrested under his watch, while those in power have been accused of overseeing a rise in Buddhist nationalism which has sent Muslims fleeing.


What Buddhist nationalism means for real people


Many close to the military have been the first in line to rake in benefits from reforms.

In its last days in power the outgoing government has been accused of rushing through business deals which are not clearly explained. 

His legacy may be imperfect, but Thein Sein will be remembered for a central role in the country's slow escape from its dark dictatorial past.

The onus is now on Suu Kyi and her government, which has inherited big  issues - including civil wars, religious tensions and useless public services - as well as soaring expectations of change.

"It's not just impatience among the people, I think the country needs results pretty fast otherwise things could unravel," Khin Zaw Win, a political analyst, said.

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