THEIN SEIN: HIS LIFE, HIS RISE IN THE MYANMAR MILITARY AND MYANMAR UNDER HIS CONTROL

THEIN SEIN

In February 2011, as final step in Burma's so-called "roadmap to democracy," chose a new civilian president and the man selected for the job was Thein Sein. Associated Press reported: “Thein Sein, 65, is the country's first civilian president after nearly 50 years of military rule. His appointment by parliament is the latest step in Burma's self-declared transition to democracy. Thein Sein is a former general who served as the junta's prime minister from October 2007. He heads the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party which won a huge majority in the November 2010 elections. Thein Sein has an image as a "clean" soldier, not engaged in corruption. As prime minister and the fourth-ranking military leader in the junta, however, he did not have much decision-making power.” [Source: Associated Press, February 4, 2011 <>]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: He is sometimes called the Mikhail Gorbachev of Myanmar, a once-loyal apparatchik of one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships who is chipping away at some of its worst legacies — freeing political prisoners, partially unshackling the press and allowing the long-persecuted opposition to run for election. Why U Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, evolved from the right-hand man of a much-feared dictator to a campaigner for democratic change is as much a mystery as why the leaders of the former military junta have allowed him to do so. But in a series of interviews with those who watched Mr. Thein Sein’s rise in the military...a picture has begun to emerge of a man who was always a shade different from his fellow generals. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012]

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “In photographs, General Thein Sein looks like a Hollywood version of a banana-republic honcho, his narrow chest overwhelmed by the rows of medals and ribbons pinned to his uniform. U.S. diplomats describe Than Shwe's longtime aide as betraying little of his own personality in meetings. "I don't think Than Shwe had any idea Thein Sein would change things so quickly," says Hla Maung Shwe, vice president of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and a former political prisoner. "Really, we were all very surprised." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013 ^^]

“On the slumped shoulders of this slight man rests the future of Burma. So do the world's hopes that a land of nearly 60 million people can pull off a democratic transition and serve as a model for other emerging nations. Compared with the explosive revolutions of the Arab Spring, Burma's transformation has been far more peaceful — and all the more surprising. Just a couple of years ago, Burma was a global pariah, an outpost of tyranny in the U.S. government's view because of the junta's often murderous disregard for its people. Yet members of that same paranoid military regime are engendering the liberalizations remaking Burma. For once in the political tumult of recent years, reforms have come not from an angry outpouring on the streets but from the nexus of power.” ^^

See Separate Article on Things Begin to Change in Myanmar

Thein Sein’s Early Life

Thein Sein was born on April 20, 1945 in the remote village of Kyonku in the southern Irrawaddy region of Myanmar. He began his army career at the military academy — a route taken by the majority of the junta’s top generals. Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, In “his birthplace, Mr. Thein Sein and his family are known for being slightly different. Like most of Myanmar’s top generals, Mr. Thein Sein grew up in poverty. The youngest of three children, he was born in a small wooden house on the road that runs through the center of the town, which is an eight-hour drive southwest of Yangon, the nation’s biggest city. His parents did not own any land, and his father, U Maung Phyo, made a living, in part, by weaving bamboo mats, said U Kyaw Soe, who grew up across the street from the president. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012 +]

“But the president’s father was a former Buddhist monk, whom villagers described as unusually literate for the time. “The main reason for his success is his father,” Mr. Kyaw Soe said. “He was a great teacher and respected moral values.” Mr. Kyaw Soe said the village’s lack of development today stands as a testament to the president’s honesty; he has not favored Kyonku since assuming power a year ago. The village remains without running water or paved roads. Visitors are warned not to travel after dark on the dirt road that connects Kyonku to the outside world because they risk of colliding with the elephants that inhabit the hills. +

Thein Sein’s Village

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Deep in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, the rhythms of Kyonku village echo from another century. Oxen and buffalo plow the paddies; women in sarongs smoke pipes and swat mosquitoes, which can carry malaria or dengue. Decades ago, ethnic Karen insurgents, one of dozens of tribal militias that battled Burma's long-ruling military regime, prowled the hills. Today the Karen rebels have laid down their arms. Instead, wild elephants roam, strolling after sunset and occasionally charging villagers in a fury of tusks. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013 =]

“The wooden house in Kyonku where Burma's President, Thein Sein, grew up still stands, a creaky time capsule in a country largely preserved in amber. Thein Sein's father wove mats and hefted river cargo to make ends meet. The family was poor, like so many in then British Burma — a category that still includes one-third of Burmese. Attending university was unaffordable. But Thein Sein passed the test for the Defense Services Academy, launching, in 1965, a 45-year military career that ended when he retired as the country's fourth-ranking general and then assumed the civilian presidency in March 2011. An isolated country officially known as Myanmar, Burma is now navigating a path between military dictatorship and democratic governance, and this quiet son of the delta is in charge. =

“Today, Thein Sein's nephew runs a small shop in Kyonku next to the President's childhood home, selling bottles of palm toddy and the betel that stain Burmese smiles crimson. The nephew's youngest daughter has never met her famous relative, who now lives in Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, with its eight-lane avenues and grandiose ministry buildings. But the 6-year-old has a request for her granduncle. "Please ask him to buy me a car," Su Myat Yi tells me, as the sole electric bulb in her house flutters, then dies. It seems a ludicrous request in a dirt-path village with no running water. Politicians anywhere, from dictatorships to democracies, divert goodies back to their hometowns. But in a sign of the President's clean image in this chronically corrupt nation, Thein Sein's ascension to power has not changed Kyonku. Still, a Burmese girl can dream. "A nice big car," she says. "With air-conditioning." =

“Thein Sein's village of Kyonku lies just over the hills from Arakan. Both regions share a bounty of wild elephants, in particular the rare white variety that is believed, in Burma, to confer good fortune on a ruler's reign. It was in Arakan that the last five of these propitious beasts were caught. The most recent albino pachyderm was found in 2010, when the New Light of Myanmar proclaimed that "the auspicious occasion coincides with the democratic transition of the nation." Some of the Arakan white elephants now reside in a rather dispiriting enclosure in Naypyidaw. To tame such wild creatures, one elephant handler says, locals sing for days and stroke the animal until it "discovers it can feel happy among men." That's something Thein Sein, Burma's surprising conciliator, might understand. =

Thein Sein’s Early Career

AFP reported: “In a country where even the most mundane career detail of prominent figures is swathed in secrecy, very little is known about the president’s climb to the top of Myanmar’s political and military system.” Thein Sein is “known to have served in Kyaingtaung town in the northeastern region of Myanmar that was part of the so-called “golden triangle” axis with Laos and Thailand, notorious as a drug smuggling hub. [Source: AFP, February 4, 2011]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, Thein Sein had a command during the crushing of the 1988 uprising that left thousands of civilians dead. But The Irrawaddy, a publication run by exiles in Thailand, recently noted a distinction, reporting that his unit in 1988 had either released the democracy activists it captured or handed them to the local authorities, perhaps sparing their lives. Khuensai Jaiyen, an editor of an organization that reports news about one of the largest of the country’s many minority groups, summed up the relative good feelings about the president, who later commanded troops in his region. “If you ask the people here which commander they liked the most, it would go to him,” Mr. Khuensai said by telephone. “Or, more accurately, he was the commander that people hated the least.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012]

Like so much about Mr. Thein Sein’s past, The Irrawaddy story is difficult to confirm independently. The freer press in Myanmar is still far from free. And there are few in-depth reports about the man who became president in March 2011. An adviser to the president did not respond to e-mailed questions about Mr. Thein Sein’s background and his motivations for leading the reforms. With so little to draw on, it is impossible to say what is driving Mr. Thein Sein as he sends his country hurtling, at least for now, toward a more open society.

Thein Sein’s Character, Appearance and Health

Slender, balding and bespectacled, Thein Sein cuts a less domineering figure than his predecessor Than Shwe, who ran Myanmar into the ground between 1990 and 2010. Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “In photographs, General Thein Sein looks like a Hollywood version of a banana-republic honcho, his narrow chest overwhelmed by the rows of medals and ribbons pinned to his uniform. U.S. diplomats describe Than Shwe's longtime aide as betraying little of his own personality in meetings. "I don't think Than Shwe had any idea Thein Sein would change things so quickly," says Hla Maung Shwe, vice president of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and a former political prisoner. "Really, we were all very surprised." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013 =]

“Sitting in a gilded throne [at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital] that could easily fit three heads of state, Thein Sein seems out of place — by far the least prepossessing force in a receiving hall filled with ministers and attendants. At ease, his expression resembles that of a turtle digesting a lettuce lunch: mild, blinking, contemplative. He has none of the gravitas of a strongman. "I never dreamed of becoming President," he tells me during a rare interview before deflecting further. "There are other qualified people." He trails off into a round of noisy throat clearing. Thein Sein is a former junta henchman better known for listening, a leader still trying to find his voice. =

“The kind of historic change unfolding in Burma is usually led by confident and charismatic individuals, like China's Deng and South Africa's Mandela. But, down to his gray pallor and balding pate, Thein Sein is more Burma's Gorbachev, a diffident, seemingly colorless apparatchik whose accomplishments could far eclipse the man himself. "We are in the midst of an unprecedented period of transition," Thein Sein tells TIME, "from military to democratic government, from armed conflict to peace and from a centralized economy to a new, market-oriented economy." Any one of those shifts could take decades. Burma is attempting all at the same time. =

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Thein Sein is slight, bookish and considered softer — or at least less ruthless — than the other members of the junta that took power after a popular uprising in 1988. He is widely viewed as being free of the corruption that stained so many of those generals; even former critics have noted with approval that his wife and daughters have avoided the ostentatious shows of wealth that earned his predecessor’s family so much animosity in one of Asia’s poorest countries. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012 +]

“In interview after interview, former critics and longtime supporters alike made much of his sincerity and humility. One former adviser and presidential speechwriter, U Nay Win Maung, offered this assessment last year: “Not ambitious, not decisive, not charismatic, but very sincere.” Mr. Kyaw Soe’s assessment of the president’s character was echoed by others. “There were certainly people who were close to the military who thought that he was one of the better ones, that he was not personally corrupt,” said Larry M. Dinger, who until August led the United States Mission in Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma. +

His lack of ostentation has made a favorable impression on average Burmese, who witnessed increasingly unabashed displays of wealth by former military leaders after the junta sold off many of the country’s prized assets to friends and allies in the year leading up to the handover of power in 2011. Some analysts speculate that the cash bonanza may partly explain the former leaders’ acquiescence to the president’s reforms. +

In May 2012, AP reported: Thein Sein was resting at his home in Yangon after military doctors paid a house call but an adviser said his condition was "nothing to worry about."It was not immediately clear what was ailing the 67-year-old leader, but he could be suffering from exhaustion due to a heavy workload, presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing told The Associated Press. Thein Sein has a heart condition and reportedly traveled to Singapore earlier this year for a new pacemaker. [Source: Associated Press, May 17, 2012]

Thein Sein Comes to Power

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “In January, 2011, Than Shwe, who was seventy-seven, anointed a successor, General Thein Sein, who had all the makings of a Burmese Medvedev. Generally regarded as a nonentity, Thein Sein had been the acting Prime Minister when the government opened fire on the monks, in 2007. If he showed any evident virtue, it was that, in a kleptocratic regime, he was relatively uncorrupt. “He carried out the orders like everybody else,” a prominent Burmese entrepreneur told me. “But every businessman in the country knows he’s clean—and that’s why he was never that powerful.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“The dictator may have had another reason for choosing a cipher as his successor.When Burma’s last king took the throne, he ordered his advisers to kill seventy rivals and their families in three days. Once a king lost his palace, as a Burmese saying held, “he is left with nothing but his umbrella.” Than Shwe was acquainted with the tradition, because he had helped insure that his predecessor died under house arrest, with three grandsons and a son-in-law on death row. Choosing the pallid heir was “the best insurance policy,” the businessman said, adding, “And, sure enough, he announced, right after his inauguration, that we are not interested in pursuing the past. Translation: amnesty.” *-*

“And yet, in ways that are only now becoming clear, Thein Sein was not entirely who he appeared to be. As Prime Minister to a dictator, he had few duties, and had used his trips abroad to slip out and walk around in foreign cities. In May, 2008, as Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta, where he’d grown up, he found himself in charge of the state’s breathtakingly inept response. (Among other failures, the generals initially turned down foreign aid, fearing an invasion.) More than a hundred and thirty-eight thousand people died. *-*

Thein Sein: “Total Loyalty” and “Mr Clean”

On Thein Sein’s reputation both within Myanmar and outside it, AFP reported: “With a military career spanning almost 50 years and a reputation for absolute loyalty to Myanmar’s junta strongman, Thein Sein was the obvious choice for new president, analysts say. The former general, who shed his uniform to contest the country’s controversial November elections, is someone Than Shwe “can trust, someone who will listen to him”, said Myanmar “It is not an accident that he came to power because he is considered ‘Mr Clean’,” adding the 65-year-old was not linked to business groups or factions forming among lawmakers in Myanmar’s new parliament. [Source: AFP, February 4, 2011 ||||]

“Thein Sein was described as working “from the same script” as the junta number one in a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks recently. He is also “regarded as a ‘mystery man’” who has “risen quietly under the patronage of Than Shwe, to whom he has shown ‘total loyalty’,” according to Benedict Rogers in his biography of Myanmar’s supreme leader. ||||

“Thein Sein then began to ascend to the junta’s highest echelons, becoming a crucial force behind Myanmar’s “roadmap” for “disciplined democracy” — the seven-stage plan to transform the junta into a civilian government. In 2004 he was appointed head of the National Convention, which was to draft the constitution that came into force with November’s election and appeared designed to keep the generals in power.Thein Sein, who had become prime minister the year before with the death of the previous incumbent Soe Win, became the regime mouthpiece during Nargis and was noted for his callousness towards the region of his birth. Myanmar’s rulers refused foreign assistance for weeks as 2.4 million people desperately struggled for survival in the aftermath of the disaster, displaying a level of paranoia that shocked international observers. ||||

“In 2010, Thein Sein retired from the military and formed the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which now dominates the country’s fledgling parliament. Rogers said he is allegedly involved in gold mining in Kachin State, “which has resulted in the seizure of hundreds of acres of villagers’ land”. His name, and that of his wife, also crops up on a European sanctions list, with other key members of the junta and its cronies. ||||

“Details of his career may be thin, but Myanmar expert Maung Zarni, of the London School of Economics, said he believes Thein Sein’s success in the junta can be attributed to his attachment to the regime’s senior general. “No one rises in Than Shwe’s universe unless they play the role of a lapdog which jumps at the drop of a hat,” he said.” ||||

Thein Sein as the Leader of Myanmar

Thein Sein took office from the former military junta in March 2011 and expressed bold goals and launched a wave of dramatic reforms that surprised the world. According to the Washington Post: “As with most of those in Burma’s ruling elite, little is known about Thein Sein, including how much control he now retains over the powerful military. Even those in the United States working most closely with their Burmese counterparts say they are unclear on how decisions are made.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, January 19, 2012]

In his first year in office, year, AP reported, “Thein Sein's government has spearheaded unprecedented change in Myanmar, relaxing decades of harsh rule and allowing freedoms previously unheard of in the Southeast Asian nation. Media censorship has eased dramatically, the government has signed cease-fire deals with multiple armed insurgent groups, and crucial investment laws are being rewritten. But major challenges remain. Rights groups say the rule of law is weak, corruption is strong, and fighting continues in the north between ethnic Kachin rebels and government forces.” [Source: Yadana Htun, Associated Press, August 27, 2012]

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “In his equivalent of a State of the Union address in March 2012— an innovation in itself — he vowed to put in place a system of universal health care, and he said spending on education would double. He also repeatedly called the news media the “fourth estate” and said it “can ensure liberty and accountability.” At least so far, Mr. Thein Sein has shown a fair level of political, and geopolitical, savvy. By suspending work on a controversial Chinese hydroelectric dam, he played to popular worries of Myanmar, with a population of 55 million, being exploited by its far larger neighbor. The move also signals to the United States that renewing ties with Myanmar may have an upside in the battle for regional power with China. Many still worry that the reforms could stall, and that too much hinges on the president. The presidential speechwriter Mr. Nay Win Maung, who died in January 2012, suggested in an interview late last year that there was reason for concern. “The changes have been ad hoc,” he said. “There’s been no strategy. It’s been personality-based.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012]

On a major cabinet reshuffle in July 2012, Yadana Htun of Associated Press wrote: Myanmar's president announced a major Cabinet reshuffle, a move analysts see as advancing the once-pariah nation's reformist agenda. The shake-up is the biggest since President Thein Sein's government took office. Rumors have swirled for months about a possible reshuffle. The announcement made on the president's official website said the overhaul affects nine of several dozen Cabinet posts. Some 15 new deputy ministers are also being appointed. Among the most prominent changes is the replacement of former Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, widely seen as a hard-liner. He was replaced by Labor and Social Welfare Minister Aung Kyi, who has also acted as a liaison between the government and pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. [Source: Yadana Htun, Associated Press, August 27, 2012 ==]

“The presidential statement did not name all of the new ministers, but said several outgoing ministers — most considered reformists — would be moved to four new ministerial-level posts in the president's office. They include the ministers of finance, national planning and economic development, and Railways Minister Aung Min, who has played a key role in negotiating cease-fires with ethnic rebel groups. Thant Myint-U, a historian from Myanmar and grandson of the late U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, said in a tweet that the reshuffle is "unquestionably a strengthening of President U Thein Sein's reformist agenda, with top academics, technocrats brought into (the) Cabinet." Thein Sein has said in recent comments that he would leave behind anyone who is against reform. Earlier this month, military representatives in parliament appointed the country's politically moderate naval chief as one of the nation's two vice presidents. Vice Admiral Nyan Tun replaced a known hard-liner, Tin Aung Myint Oo, who resigned citing health reasons. ==

On Thein Sein’s first press conference, Associated Press reported: “Burma's reformist president held his first press conference for local press, a milestone after years of secrecy and censorship by the former military regime. Thein Sein answered about 30 questions from local press and foreign correspondents on subjects ranging from fighting with ethnic rebels in the north to amending the country's military-fashioned constitution. The press conference in the capital, Naypyitaw, ran 20 minutes past its scheduled two-hour length. The 67-year-old ex-general looked tense as he started answering questions but soon relaxed enough to reveal a little-known sense of humour. [Source: Associated Press, October 21, 2012 <>]

“Explaining why he was holding the pioneering press conference, he told of being interviewed many times during his recent visit to the United States and said he had the hardest time answering questions on the inquisitorial BBC programme HardTalk. After surviving that experience, he said, he was no longer afraid of meeting the media. But he added that he feared he would also be criticised by Burma's media if he did not come out to talk at home after giving so many interviews abroad. Thein Sein avoided revealing too much, speaking only in general terms even about critical matters such as the fighting in Kachin state, which reflects a deeper, long-running problem of how much autonomy to give the large ethnic minorities living in border regions. <>

“In what many see as an example of the government's weakness compared to the still-influential military, his orders last year for the army to cease its fighting against the Kachin Independence Army were ignored. "To get a ceasefire agreement is our government's goal," he said when asked about the matter. "It's the people's desire to get peace and we are doing our best for the people's desire." Thein Sein was asked if he would give the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi a role in his government. Whether or not she took a role in government depended on her, Thein Sein said. “ <>

Myanmar Government Awakens to the Modern World

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Thein Sein was hardly the only one in the military who was awakening to the magnitude of the nation’s failure. The ferocity of the assault on the monks—an unprecedented use of violence against the country’s most revered institution—had drawn lines within the military. A source close to the military told the U.S. Embassy that “Than Shwe and Maung Aye”— his second-in-command—“gave the orders to crack down on the monks, including shooting them if necessary,” according to a November, 2007, cable. As a result, the source said, there was “growing daylight between the top two leaders and the regime’s second-tier commanders.” The following summer, the Embassy noted, “Some of the regional commanders are reform-minded and aware of the need for political and economic reform.” On March 31, 2011, in Thein Sein’s inauguration speech, he called for workers’ rights and for an end to corruption; he welcomed international expertise; and, most startling, he said that Burma’s numerous ethnic groups had been subjected to a “hell of untold miseries,” suggesting his intention to end the conflicts that have made Burma host to the world’s longest-running civil war.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

When Burmese listened to that speech,” the entrepreneur told me, “they said, ‘This is so unusual, so alien to what we have been hearing for the past four decades!’ ” The Burmese merchant class had been pushing for political change that could boost trade, but, to many, it was impossible to imagine the old strongman allowing this. Than Shwe’s imprint on government was fading faster than people had predicted, and his step back had emboldened younger generals. “They were in a position where they could start fighting for reform,” Priscilla Clapp, a former Chief of Mission of the American Embassy, said. “If they had done this during the earlier years, they would have been purged.” What’s more, if they needed any added incentive to forge ahead on reforms, the Arab Spring was toppling dictators one after another, and as the Presidential adviser Nay Zin Latt told a reporter, “We do not want an Arab Spring here.” *-*

“A group of Burmese businessmen, journalists, and academics who had developed ties to the military were eager to exploit the growing desire for a path out of Burma’s isolation. They’d formed an N.G.O. called Myanmar Egress—a way out—and though it attracted considerable suspicion from activists abroad, who feared that the group was more interested in controlling reform than in unleashing it, the businessmen were pushing the younger generals to confront how little they truly understood. To provide a glimpse of a functioning executive branch, the group gave the new President DVDs of “The West Wing.” Thant Myint-U, a historian and an author who advises President Thein Sein, also urged top leaders to consider reform. “Abstract moral arguments weren’t going to cut much ice,” he told me. “And they were deeply cynical of Western rhetoric on human rights. The argument we made that got the most traction was: ‘We’re falling so far behind our neighbors economically— China and India—that, unless we change, politically as well as economically, it’s going to be disastrous.’ ” Thomas Carothers calls it the “neighborhood effect,” and explained, “When Laos overtakes you in percapita G.D.P., it’s time to rethink your basic national strategy.” *-*

Thein Sein’s Brain Trust

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “One of the generals the businessmen spoke to was a former intelligence officer named Aung Min. He’d been the railway minister since 2003, and though he retains the title, he now has sweeping responsibilities for brokering peace with ethnic rebels and shaping the reform agend a. When Aung Min travelled to Bangkok to deliver a talk, Egress took the opportunity to show him around a modern city. “We took him to the food court, and on the Skytrain,” one of the men on the tour told me. “On the car ride, he observed how the farms worked, how the roads worked, how the tolls worked.” Routine details of government responsiveness seemed to impress him. When he flew to Europe, he commented on the fact that Westerners scheduled fewer flights at night in order to reduce the noise for people who live near the airport. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“When I met Aung Min this spring in Rangoon, he had about him a Brylcreem crispness that evoked an Asian Robert McNamara. He and the President had been young officers together, and I asked him why Thein Sein was making these changes. “He understands that he can’t run the government the way it used to be run by the previous government, that this government is elected by the people,” he said, adding, “If you don’t do what the people want, you won’t survive.” *-*

“Talking with Aung Min was a peculiar experience, not only because approaching a Burmese minister could have got a journalist deported a year ago but also because I couldn’t figure out how much of what he said was pabulum, for international consumption, or how a man who had spent eight years in the Cabinet of one of the world’s most vicious dictators could think that his people had forgotten. “This is only the beginning,” he said. “There will be many things to do in this country. But step by step, one at a time.” *-*

“That tension—between vowing change and calling for patience—reflects the fact that, among former generals, the idea of reform remains so intensely polarizing that even some of its standard-bearers flinch at the term. When I met the industry minister, Soe Thane, a small, hyperalert former Navy man, and one of the few members of the Cabinet who speak English, he was in a buoyant mood. “We feel good. We have to move,” he said. I asked if he knew when the remaining political prisoners would be released, and a pained expression creased his face. “My duty is apart from that,” he said. When an Australian reporter approached with a question that described the minister as part of the “reform group,” Soe Thane let out a nervous bark of a laugh and said, “No, no, no, no, no.” A moment later, he announced, “Time’s up!,” and marched off. When I encountered him again, he explained that he worries about inflaming his conservative peers. “We must be patient, and give favor to the other party,” he said. *-*

Foreign Policy Under Thein Sein

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “One of the first things Thein Sien did was hire an assortment of academics and former officers as advisers. Among those whose aid he enlisted was Nay Zin Latt, a businessman who, since retiring from the Army, had become a political commentator. “I was asked to prepare a report for the government about the next fifty years for the United States and the next fifty years for China,” he told me, as he chain-smoked in his office. His conclusion? “Let’s put it this way: In the long run, the United States is still strong!” For two decades, American policy was designed to choke the regime into submission. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

Hannah Beech wrote in Time:“One of Thein Sein’s most forceful decisions in the early months of his presidency was to suspend the construction of a Chinese-controlled mega-dam in Kachin state that would have submerged a local spiritual site while sending nearly all the electricity to neighboring China. (Chinese sources say dam construction may begin again soon, if Beijing’s lobbying has any effect.) [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013]

China-Backed Myitsone Dam

The $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam is located at the headwaters of Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy. Standing 500-feet-tall and located in Kachin state in northeast Myanmar, not far from China, the hydroelectric dam is the the first—and biggest—of seven dams slated to be built. Part of a joint venture between China Power Investment (CPI) and Myanmar's regime-friendly Asia World, the Myitsone Dam is expected to have a generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than the country as a whole now produces. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011]

The Chinese-financed initiative to build the dam was approved by the Myanmar government on the grounds that electricity and revenues it generated would improve livelihoods in an isolated region of Myanmar with poor infrastructure and few economic prospects. Under the scheme 90 percent of electricity generated from it would go across the border to China's southwestern Yunnan province in exchange for $17 billion over a 50-year period. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012]

Scheduled to be completed in 2019 before the project was suspended in November 2011, Myitsone Dam would have created a reservoir some 766 square kilometers (296 square miles)— an area slightly bigger than Singapore.

See Separate Article: MYITSONE DAM: THE UNPOPULAR CHINA-BACKED PROJECT AND ITS SUSPENSION

China and the Myitsone Dam

The Myitsone Dam has been designed to pump electricity almost exclusively into China’s power grid, despite the fact that Burma suffers daily power outages. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council has hailed the dam as a model overseas project serving Chinese interests. Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: “As the world’s biggest consumer of energy, China has hunted far and wide in recent years for sources of power — and of profit — for state-owned corporate behemoths such as CPI. The result is a web of deals with often-repressive regimes, from oil-rich African autocracies such as Sudan and Angola to river-rich Burma. Chinese-built dams in Laos and especially Burma will pump electricity into China’s power grid. The dams under construction by CPI on Burma’s Irrawaddy River and its tributaries would, if completed, be capable of generating roughly as much electricity as China’s gigantic Three Gorges Dam. Ninety percent of that energy would go to China. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011 :::]

“CPI has reacted angrily to assertions that the project will benefit mainly China. “People who hold such a wrong viewpoint either don’t understand the situation or have ulterior motives,” Lu Qizhou, the company’s Beijing-based Communist Party secretary and president, said. He cited hundreds of miles of new roads, better flood control and other benefits for Burma. But China’s own government, in an August 2011 report by the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, hailed CPI’s Burma venture as a model of party-led overseas expansion in pursuit of Chinese interests. The report noted that the dam project “principally serves our nation’s southern power grid” in a national strategy to boost electricity supplies to boom towns in China’s east. :::

“CPI said that Burma’s market is not big enough to “digest all the electricity” due to be generated. A CPI-commissioned study of the environmental and social consequences of the project acknowledged “some unavoidable adverse impact” but said that overall, it would have “significant benefits in terms of society, economy and the environment.” It blamed opposition to the project on “fake propaganda by partial organizations.” The company’s secrecy also stirred suspicions in Burma. But it won plaudits in Beijing. The report by China’s state-owned assets agency praised CPI’s Communist Party units for their “closed management” and described the project site as “an isolated island floating above the national soil of Burma.” :::

After Thein Sein

Thein Sein has not ruled out running for a second term as president but is widely expected to retire because of health problems. He was 68 in 2013. Shwe Mann, chief of Myanmar's pro-military party and lower house speaker, is widely viewed as his successor.

Shwe Mann: the Future of the Military-Backed party

Thein Sein has not ruled out running for a second term as president but is widely expected to retire. Shwe Mann, chief of Myanmar's pro-military party and lower house speaker, is widely viewed as his successor.

Matthew Pennington of Associated Press wrote: “Few epitomize Myanmar's dramatic transition from pariah state to aspiring democracy as powerfully as Shwe Mann, a 65-year-old former general who was a trusted lieutenant of junta chief Than Shwe. A March 2007 diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yangon published by Wikileaks even dubbed him a "dictator-in-waiting." He also led a secret 2008 trip to North Korea, reportedly reaching an agreement on missile technology cooperation. But as Myanmar has changed direction, so has Shwe Mann. He's now viewed as a committed reformer and closer to Suu Kyi than current President Thein Sein who has led the nation's political changes. [Source: Matthew Pennington, Associated Press, June 13, 2013 >*>]

Shwe Mann replaced Thein Sein as head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which dominates the fledgling legislature. His influence also extends into the still-powerful military he served in for four decades. His delegation got a grand reception when it came to Washington, meeting with top State Department officials, former top diplomat Hillary Rodham Clinton and lawmakers, including House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Crowley, and Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and John McCain. >*>

The trip, to learn how Congress works, was organized by the National Democratic Institute and the Institute for Representative Government. Six Myanmar lawmakers are participating. At a public forum they attended Wednesday at a Washington think tank, Shwe Mann voiced commitment to rule of law, and said those who broke it would be punished. But he later denied to AP reports from international human rights groups that security forces have been complicit in sectarian violence against minority Rohingya Muslims in the west of predominantly Buddhist nation. The violence has killed hundreds in the past year, and uprooted about 140,000, in what some say presents a threat to Myanmar's political reforms because it could encourage security forces to re-assert control. While acknowledging challenges in the democratic transition, Shwe Mann predicted the 2015 elections would be free and fair. >*>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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