THEIN SEIN, REFORMS AND AUNG SAN SUU KYI

THEIN SEIN ON MYANMAR’S DRIVE TOWARDS DEMOCRACY

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post: Myanmar’s “president sketched a vision of gradual progress toward democracy for his isolated and authoritarian nation in his first extensive interview with a U.S. journalist, saying that the military will retain a strong role in government even as it welcomes opposition figures into parliament. “My message is that we are on the right track to democracy,” President Thein Sein told the Post’s Lally Weymouth. “Because we are on the right track, we can only move forward, and we don’t have any intention to draw back.” “We’re trying to be encouraging and prudent. It’s still early in the overall process,” said a senior administration official. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, January 19, 2012]

In the interview, Thein Sein stopped far short of guaranteeing the nation a full slate of democratic freedoms, balking at the possibility of ending censorship of Burma’s growing press while extolling “peace and stability” as core goals of his government. The military no longer has a formal role in the nation’s executive branch, he said, but it controls one-fourth of the seats in parliament. Of the more than 600 seats overall, 48 are up for election April 1. “We cannot leave the military behind because we require the military’s participation in our country’s development,” he said.

Thein Sein expressed clear desire to bring desperately needed economic development to Burma. But also evident was a sense of the limitations he may be facing in pushing for change amid various factions — including hard-line military leaders, democracy activists and several ethnic minority groups that remain locked in a bloody civil war with Burma’s army. Thein Sein acknowledged the intractable nature of the fighting, which in many cases has lasted for decades: “We will try to achieve an eternal peace in the country. However, this will require time.”

Reforms Under Thein Sein

Reforms initiated by Thein Sein have included floating the Myanmar's currency, allowing the establishment of unions and workers organizations, creating a human rights commission and launching rural development schemes. In early 2012, media and Internet restrictions were eased and the opposition was allowed to participate in the electoral process.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Since taking office in March, 2011, the former generals who make up Burma’s first civilian government in forty-nine years have taken many steps in the direction of democracy than Burma has seen in four decades. They have relaxed media censorship, legalized the right to unionize, and allowed members of the main opposition party to compete for office; they have also distanced themselves from Burma’s longtime patron, China. In June, Australia took the symbolic step of abandoning the name Burma. The sudden access to a new market on China’s southern border has inspired flights of extraordinary optimism. “If I could put all my money into Myanmar, I would,” Jim Rogers, the Singapore-based American investor, declared. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

U.S. envoy Kurt M. Campbell wrote in Foreign Policy: “Thein Sein's government has released hundreds of political prisoners; eased draconian restrictions on speech, assembly, and movement; established cease-fires with most insurgent ethnic groups; and launched a wobbly electoral process that eventually allowed Aung San Suu Kyi's once-banned opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to take legislative seats. [Source: Kurt M. Campbell, Foreign Policy, December 2012]

According to the February 2013 report: “U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma”: “In the 18 months since his government assumed office, President Thein Sein has driven a reform agenda aided by a group of reform oriented Ministers in his Cabinet, two reform-minded parliamentary speakers, and by the hard work of many others within and outside government who share a vision for a stronger, more prosperous, fair, and peaceful Burma. I would also highlight that these developments have been a vindication of Aung San Suu Kyi’s stalwart support for reform and opening in Burma. With the tide of reform she helped put in motion coming in, Daw Suu remains a unique symbol of hope and freedom in Burma, even as she immerses herself in the difficult daily work of improving the quality of democracy as a parliamentarian in her country. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013 **]

“Reforms after Parliament convened in January 2011 have included allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to contest parliamentary by-elections on 1 April 2012, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, reaching preliminary peace agreements with 10 of the 11 major armed ethnic groups, enacting laws that provide better protections for basic human rights, and gradually reducing restrictions on freedom of the press, association, and civil society. At least due in part to these reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi now serves as an elected Member of Parliament and chair of the Committee for Rule of Law and Tranquility. Most political parties have begun building their institutions in preparation for the next round of general elections in 2015. **

In November 2011, Associated Press reported: “ Myanmar’s Parliament approved a law guaranteeing the right to protest, one of a series of reforms under the new elected government. The law is significant because the right to protest had not previously existed in Myanmar. The protest law says would-be participants must seek permission five days before the event and provide details about slogans and speakers. Protests are prohibited at factories, hospitals and government offices. Staging a protest without permission carries a penalty of one year in prison. [Source: AP, November 25, 2011]

In November 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Myanmar appears to be making some "real changes" to its political system. "It appears that there are real changes taking place on the ground and we support these early efforts at reform," she said. Clinton noted reports of "substantive dialogue" between the government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and changes to the Southeast Asian country's laws on labor and political party registration. "Many questions remain, including the government's continued detention of political prisoners and whether reform will be sustained and extended to include peace and reconciliation in the ethnic minority areas," Clinton said. [Source: Paul Eckert, Reuters, November 12, 2011]

Reform Process Under Thein Sein

According to the February 2013 report: “President Thein Sein’s government and the parliament have admirably created a top-down reform process that has pushed through a range of important initiatives at a rapid pace. These changes have opened important and unprecedented political space. But open political space will not bring meaningful change unless more people throughout the country and in all segments of the society move into this space and start to use it. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013 **]

“Making Burma a home for all of its people will require broad, grassroots engagement by the widest possible range of its citizens, from ethnic leaders and bloggers, to lawyers and lawmakers, to factory workers and human rights advocates. All of these groups will need to push for structural changes from the bottom up, at the same time as the political leadership works to push reform from the top down. Where these two forces meet is not for the United States to say. It’s up to the Burmese to build trust on both sides and to negotiate a space where they can coexist peacefully, and in so doing to begin to make durable, systemic change. Reforming the system from within is an immense task. It will require political will from the top down, dynamism from the bottom up, and for those who have profited from power to share it. **

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Thein Sein continued to publicly support the reform process, despite the opposition’s near sweep of the parliamentary by-election in April 2012, saying that the vote was “conducted in a very successful way.” Although relatively few spots were filled in the election, the opposition’s commanding showing, coupled with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s winning her own seat, could be perceived as a threat to the governing party, which faces a general election in 2015. Former critics’ early praise for Mr. Thein Sein is not to say that they are fully satisfied with the changes he has made. Although many political prisoners were freed, some activists calculate that hundreds remain in prison. Nor are they blind to Mr. Thein Sein’s past: he spent his adult life, until last year, in a military known for cruelty. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012]

Strangeness of Myanmar’s Transformation

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Burma’s opening has so far defied the narrative logic we’ve come to associate with political transformation: there is, as yet, no crowd picking through a ruined palace, no dictator in the dock. The world has witnessed more than a hundred attempts to end authoritarianism in the past twenty-five years, but the top-down, bloodless variety is rare. More often, as Thomas Carothers, a specialist on democratization at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of dictators, “It has to be taken away from them, usually by angry citizens.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“In Burma, unlike the street revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia or the civil wars in Libya or Syria, many members of the former dictatorship have retained power. When top generals retired their commissions a year ago, they removed their uniforms, but one adviser told me that they still salute one another in private. Many of the reforms can be reversed if the government declares a state of emergency, and hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. And in the countryside the regime is embroiled in a brutal war against ethnic rebels, which has gone on for decades. For all the transformations Burma is undergoing, its people still find themselves strangely captive to men who were, until recently, some of history’s most dedicated enemies of democracy. “ *-*

“For all the uncertainty about Burma’s future, the facts of the present are astounding: a nation roundly described as irredeemable has stepped back from the brink. The former generals are not without vanity, and, after decades of being mocked and scorned, they are savoring the trappings of statesmanship. Moreover, the opposition is, at last, free enough to make an impact, and it is loath to squander its freedom on infighting. But the real test of the two sides’ ability to forge an open society together may not come until Burma’s next general election, in 2015. “ *-*

Response in Myanmar to Thein Sein’s Reforms

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, ““Even at the epicenter of Burma’s transformation— Rangoon, the city that stands to benefit most from the deluge of new ideas and investment—the changes have been so disorienting that the dominant sensation in the teahouses and the moldering office blocks is not so much joy as vertigo. For Khin Maung Swe, who spent sixteen years in prison, the reforms ceased to be abstract when he looked out his front door one morning in January. “The man from military intelligence who had been waiting there every day was no longer there,” he told me. “I have no idea where he went.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“Things are no less unsettled for the spooks and minders who have spent their lives eavesdropping on the nation. At a campaign rally, Swe Win, a local journalist, was taking notes when a young plainclothes officer from the secret police, known as the Special Branch, mistook him for a fellowagent and sidled up to him. “He said, ‘We’re like fish out of water here. Who knows what we’re supposed to do?’ Under the old law, he should have detained anyone holding a meeting that consisted of more than five people. I told him to go and take a seat. He obeyed my order and went and took a seat, and waited for his colleagues.” Telling the story, Swe Win, who spent six years in prison, shook his head and said, “I almost felt sorry for him.” Clapp, the former diplomat, compares the disorder of the security apparatus to “a creature that has lost its central nervous system. The legs are flailing, and it doesn’t know which way to turn,” she said. *-*

“By early summer, the Burmese people were becoming acclimated to radically altered roles both at home and in the world. Suu Kyi, after winning her seat in Parliament, travelled abroad for the first time in more than two decades, including a seventeen-day European tour fit for a head of state. On a stop in Thailand, she drew such frantic crowds that President Thein Sein cancelled his own visit there a few days later, apparently to avoid being upstaged—an episode that indicated how hard it may be for the regime to accommodate the freshman lawmaker from Kawhmu, who happens to be a Nobel laureate. She used her first short speech in Parliament to call for “equal rights” for ethnic minorities, beyond simply protecting their languages and culture. “The flames of war are not completely extinguished,” she said. *-*

“On the street, ordinary Burmese tested their new political freedoms. In May, in the airless pre-monsoon days, a wave of power outages left people stewing without fans or water pumps for their toilets, and more than a thousand protesters took to the streets of Mandalay, raging about the shortage of electricity. It was the nation’s largest demonstration in five years, and when I drove into Mandalay on the night after the protests, through a countryside as black as the sea, police officers occupied every corner downtown. It was becoming clear that the issue had far less to do with electricity than with the dawning realization that so much of the nation’s wealth had been salted away over the years by so few. A man in his twenties, showing me around a darkened neighborhood in the sidecar of his bicycle, pointed to a private clinic, whose lights had been provided by a generator, and said, bitterly, “The rich man’s hospital.” The streets were tense but, so far, peaceful. The police held their fire. *-*

Myanmar's President Promises Second Wave of Reform

In June 2012, President Thein Sein said Myanmar will embark on a "second wave of reforms" that will include tentative privatisation and a law on the minimum wage. "From this year onwards, we are working on a second wave of reforms which will focus especially on the development of the country and the public's welfare," said the former general. Also on the agenda were a new laws foreign investment and industrial zones.[Source: Reuters, June 19, 2012 >>]

Reuters reported: “ The government vowed to triple gross domestic product per capita by fiscal 2015/16, Thein Sein said in a televised speech billed by official media as a "state of the union address" on his impoverished country's reform process. In the wake of sectarian riots in northwest Myanmar that killed 50 people and displaced 30,000, he also vowed to "continue to work on national reconciliation, national peace and stability and the rule of law, and the safety of the public", and spoke of reducing the state role in several important industries, including telecommunications, electricity, energy, forestry, education, health and "financial matters". >>

"The privatisation that is in the second wave of government reforms does not mean we are going to break them up and sell them," he said. The president said the government's budget alone would not be enough to achieve its goals and highlighted the need for more foreign help in terms of aid, grants, loans and expertise to reduce poverty and boost the economy. However, he cautioned that Myanmar would "choose the type of investment that does not hurt the environment and social economy". >>

“His remarks were strikingly similar to those made by Aung San Suu Kyi on her European tour, which occurred around the same time. Thein Sein also alluded to recent street protests over chronic power outages by acknowledging that the popular demand for electricity outstripped the supply from the country's mainly hydroelectric sources. He announced the formation of a national energy committee to investigate alternative energy sources such as natural gas, much of which Myanmar now sells to neighbouring Thailand. His speech was short on politics, but in a veiled reference to the recent sectarian riots between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya, he warned of "incitement" and urged the public to "work in a united manner for the country's development". Thein Sein did not touch upon the fate of hundreds of political prisoners who remain behind bars, of whom Suu Kyi on Saturday called for the "earliest, unconditional release". >>

Motivations and Why Thein Sein Become a Reformer

Hannah Beech wrote in Time:“What prompted the transformation of the junta's No. 4 general? One explanation is that Thein Sein, a loyal soldier, was trained to follow orders but, once given the opportunity to exercise power, he asserted his moral authority. Unlike some other junta members, he was never directly implicated in major human-rights abuses or frontline massacres. There's a tantalizing hint of his principles from the President's days as a major in the light-infantry division. In the weeks after the then junta crushed the 1988 pro-democracy movement by killing hundreds of protesters, a wave of students and monks tried to flee to neighboring countries. Many army commanders imprisoned or even ordered the executions of the activists they caught. Thein Sein, in contrast, released some of those captured under his command. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 21, 2013 =]

“No dictatorship is as monolithically malevolent as it might seem from the outside. And in a military-linked regime, once the chain of command shifts from a paranoid chief to a more open-minded leader, change can occur remarkably quickly. The upper ranks of Burma's 400,000-strong armed forces, it turns out, were filled with eager English speakers who had no wish to live in a pariah state. Thein Sein, who speaks decent English, says he devoured memoirs of Western leaders like Obama, Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. In Naypyidaw, I met the editor of the New Light of Myanmar, once one of the world's most strident government mouthpieces. Than Myint Tun, a former army officer, cheerfully admits to having listened to foreign news reports that his newspaper warned were "killer broadcasts" intent on "sowing hatred." "Who wants to always be in the dark?" asks the editor. "We want to be part of the global community." =

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “One catalyst appears to have been Cyclone Nargis. The storm was Myanmar’s worst natural disaster, killing more than 130,000 people and transforming the fertile countryside of Mr. Thein Sein’s childhood into a landscape of flattened villages and rivers clogged with bloated bodies. At the time, Mr. Thein Sein was the leader of the military junta’s emergency response efforts. But as he crisscrossed the devastated Irrawaddy Delta in a helicopter, he saw how woefully unprepared his impoverished country was for the catastrophe. The cyclone became a “mental trigger,” said U Tin Maung Thann, the head of a research organization based in Yangon that provides policy advice to the president. “It made him realize the limitations of the old regime.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012 +]

“As the leader of the country’s preparedness committee, Mr. Thein Sein would have been partly to blame for the government’s failings. Critics were scathing about the decision to turn down foreign assistance in the distribution of food and other aid, a move that slowed the response as the world was captivated by images of haggard villagers desperate for help. But analysts pointed out that Mr. Thein Sein did at least make himself accessible to his people, unlike his fellow generals, who in the days immediately after the storm remained hunkered down in the capital, Naypyidaw, which was untouched by Nargis. +

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “In the crucial days after the worst storm in Burma's history, the generals refused to accept international aid, lest foreign ideological influences accompany the donations, The first junta member in the disaster zone was Thein Sein. "He went to the Senior General [Than Shwe] and said, 'Please, we must help our people. It is the Buddhist thing to do,'" government adviser Nay Win Maung, who died early last year, recalled in November 2011. "He doesn't take credit for it, but he made a big difference." =

Thein Sein served for years as prime minister. The position was several steps below that of Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the junta’s longtime leader, but Thein Sein often traveled abroad. Some U.S. officials believe that may have exposed him to just how far Burma has been left behind in the new global economy. Thein Sein ventured abroad for the first time only in his 40s, but unlike Burma's other bunkered generals, at least he came into contact with the outside world.

Kurt M. Campbell wrote in Foreign Policy, “Many explanations have been offered for Burma's sudden opening -- from geopolitics to unrelenting global pressure -- but I believe the personal experiences of these two remarkable individuals”—Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein. [Source: Kurt M. Campbell, Foreign Policy, December 2012]

When asked if she thought the regime undertook recent reforms because it believed that China was gaining too much influence or it wanted the United States and the international community as a counterbalance, Aung San Suu Kyi told the Washington Post: It’s not necessarily connected with our relations with China. A lot of officers in the Burmese army have always wanted to have good relations with the U.S. Previously we have had good relations with the U.S., and some of the generals were trained in the U.S. The minister of labor had a stint at Fort Benning. [Source: Lally Weymouth, Washington Post, January 20, 2012]

Limits of Myanmar’s Reforms

Kate Linthicum wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Despite their democratic pledges, Myanmar's former military leaders have designed a political system that continues to grant them sweeping authority. A quarter of the parliament seats are set aside for military officers appointed by the military's top commander. They sit together in uniform when the parliament is in session in Naypyidaw and have the power to veto amendments to the constitution, which require more than 75 percent of the vote. The majority of the other parliament members are recently retired military officers aligned with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is led by a former general who has said he wants to replace Thein Sein. [Source: Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2013]

“A lot of the stuff that Thein Sein has done is smart, wise, and bold,” an Obama Administration official told The New Yorker : “The question is about the local official ten levels below—will he follow through? The local commander, will he follow through? And that’s going to need to be a systemic change over years, not months.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “ The Burmese people today would not tolerate a return to the eccentric seclusion of the past, and, month by month, reforms become more difficult to undo. But if it was cynical to assume that Burma could not change, it is naive to predict a smooth and peaceful future. Forty-nine years of brutality and suspicion have distorted the body and soul of the nation, and the greatest threat may rise from within. Freedom, circumscribed, is an unstable state of nature, and the generals may not be able to control the forces they have unleashed. That fact—the volatility of rising expectations— reminded me of a story that Swe Win, the journalist, once mentioned in connection with his six years in prison. “For a long time, they didn’t let us have anything to read or write,” he said. “And then, one day, they gave us religious books. After a while, we said, ‘Since you gave us religious books, you must allow us to have non-religious books.’ And they said no. But we persisted, and eventually they said O.K. Then we said, ‘Now that we have non-religious books, you must let us read state newspapers, because you control them anyway.’ And they said no. But we persisted.” By the time he left prison, the inmates had nudged and negotiated their way to obtaining not only state newspapers but also local journals and, at last, foreign publications. “It took three years,” Swe Win said. “But we got them.” *-*

Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: Aung San Suu Kyi “said it was Mr. Thein Sein’s sincerity about reform that persuaded her to re-enter politics in 2011. That decision was a turning point for the president, not only winning him support at home, but also moving him closer to the United States, the champion of international sanctions. Within days of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s declaration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Myanmar, becoming the highest-ranking American to visit the country in half a century. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, April 3, 2012]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “But no amount of rhetoric would earn the government credibility in Burma or abroad unless it could secure the blessing of Suu Kyi. Less obvious was just how much Suu Kyi stood to gain from an alliance. After more than two decades of dissent, she was internationally renowned but not yet an active participant in the proposed reforms. In boycotting the 2010 election, her party, the National League for Democracy, had frustrated young activists, and she was at risk of becoming sainted but peripheral. For the first time in decades, all sides had a reason to find a way out of the impasse. After an exchange of secret messages, the President met Suu Kyi for dinner last August, and when she returned home she told Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the N.L.D., “I have the feeling that I can work with him.” Her endorsement was a turning point. The world took notice, and the President cleared the way for Suu Kyi’s supporters to register as a political party and for former political prisoners to run for office. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

When asked if she thought Thein Sein was sort of a Gorbachev, Suu Kyi wold the Washington Post, “ No, because Gorbachev came into power gradually through the ranks, and he had his grip on power quite firmly before he started going towards reform. Thein Sein is in a rather different situation. I think very few people expected him to become head of state. He was not the highest-ranking member in the military government under Gen. [Than] Shwe...He is respected in the army, that we know. He is one of the few members of the previous regime who is considered by all to be clean. Not only he, but his family as well, and that is unusual. [Source: Lally Weymouth, Washington Post, January 20, 2012]

U.S. envoy to Myanmar, Kurt M. Campbell wrote in Foreign Policy, “The most unlikely of political partners are driving the astonishing democratic transition in Burma. One of them is no surprise: Aung San Suu Kyi, the inspirational global icon who for recent generations has defined nonviolent struggle against oppression. The other, President Thein Sein, is an unassuming former general who rose to the senior ranks of the very military junta seen as responsible for Burma's decades of misery, but then had the courage to steer the country in a new direction. Neither sought this unusual pairing, but together they represent the most hopeful turn for Burma in half a century.[Source: Kurt M. Campbell, Foreign Policy, December 2012 \/]

“Their relationship began with a dinner in the spring of 2011 prepared by Thein Sein's wife in the couple's modest home and presented under a painting of Aung San, Burma's revered independence leader and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Warily, tentatively, the two compared shared hopes for the country's rebirth. That first meeting set the stage for the breathtaking changes in Burma following the retirement in 2011 of the junta's geriatric strongman, Than Shwe. \/

“Sustaining reform's momentum will be difficult. Much will depend on getting others to follow the courageous example of Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein in setting aside bitter enmities and deep distrust for the common good. Their shared stake in a better future led both leaders to take off a uniform -- she the mantle of international sainthood and he the insignia of the military institution that brought him to absolute power. Having done so, they can now meet on equal terms, as citizen and patriot, striving and struggling together for a new Burma. Along the way, they are inspiring us all. \/

Later Aung San Suu Kyi told the World Economic Forum: "I do believe in the sincerity of the president when he speaks of his commitment to reform. But I also recognize that he's not the only person in government. And, as I keep repeating, there's the military to be reckoned with."

Aung San Suu Kyi Meets Myanmar President Thein Sein in August 2011

In August 2011, Reuters reported: “Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi met President Thein Sein on Friday, a government source said, the first meeting between the two and the latest olive branch from the army-backed regime. Aung San Suu Kyi flew to the capital, Naypyitaw, to meet Thein Sein, formerly a top general in the military regime. They met at the presidential palace, a senior official said, giving no details of the nature of the discussion but adding it was only a short meeting. It was the first visit by Aung San Suu Kyi to Naypyitaw. [Source: Reuters, August 19, 2011 ++]

Thein Sein, who took office in March 2011, is regarded as one of the more moderate members of a new government that contains hardliners opposed to engagement with Aung San Suu Kyi. Thein Sein said when he met Suu Kyi he asked her to "set aside (their) differences and work on common ground." "For the welfare of the country, let's work together," Thein Sein told Suu Kyi. He said Suu Kyi accepted his request.

There have been other signs of change in recent weeks. Thein Sein called for several armed ethnic rebel groups to hold peace talks with the government to end decades of hostilities. The government has also invited the International Monetary Fund to look at possible reforms to its currency system and a series of meetings have taken place between senior government officials and western delegations. Most analysts believe the openness being shown by Burma's leaders is aimed in part at improving their image abroad with a view to ending decades of western sanctions and consolidating power at home. ++

Aung San Suu Kyi told the Washington Post: “My meeting with the president went well, and I believe he sincerely wants reform. But he is not the only one in government. Our present constitution gives the military far too much power. Although the president is the head of state, he is not necessarily the highest power in the land. The commander in chief can take over all powers of government at any time he feels it to be necessary. That must be very difficult if you are in the position in which our president is. I don’t know how much support he has within the army. He himself is an army man, so I assume there must be considerable support for him in military circles. But that is just an assumption. I think the president is genuine about reform. I think there are those who support him in the government. Whether all people support him, I can’t answer. [Source: Lally Weymouth, Washington Post, January 20, 2012 =]

Washington Post: I understand that when you met with President Thein Sein last summer, he had your father’s picture prominently displayed. Were you surprised when you walked in? Aung San Suu Kyi: I was, yes. I had not expected it. My father’s picture was in the center. Washington Post: Did you and the president decide you could work together? I felt I could work with him, and I hope he felt he could work with me. =

Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi Visit the U.S. Around the Same Time

The first time Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi were supposed to visit a foreign country at the same time, the President bowed out. In May 2012, Suu Kyi, headed to Thailand to speak at the World Economic Forum. It was her first trip abroad in nearly two decades. Thein Sein was supposed to speak at same event, but cancelled, apparently worried about being upstaged.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “What a difference a few months make. Suu Kyi has been on a triumphal 17-day tour of the U.S., where she once lived while working for the U.N. as a young adult. But far from feeling sidelined by the spotlight that follows Suu Kyi wherever she goes, Thein Sein is heading to New York City for his own celebratory walkabout. The man dubbed Burma’s Gorbachev will be addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 27 and has made history as the first Burmese head of state to visit the U.S. in half a century....He even met with Suu Kyi at a New York hotel, underscoring the pair’s cordial relationship — quite a contrast to former junta leader Than Shwe’s deep antipathy toward the opposition leader. [Source: Hannah Beech, September 26, 2012 =]

“Suu Kyi’s U.S. visit has included a powwow with President Barack Obama and the acceptance of the Congressional Gold Medal...In New York, she was feted at the Atlantic Council’s annual Global Citizen Awards dinner, along with musician Quincy Jones and Henry Kissinger, among others. In his remarks praising Suu Kyi — but also perhaps recognizing the role played by the Burmese government in the country’s transformation — the former U.S Secretary of State hailed “our guest from Burma” as the embodiment of how “societies become great when they turn confrontation into reconciliation.”... In New York, the Burmese democracy hero kept oil sheiks and international luminaries alike in her thrall. “I feel all Burmese are global citizens,” she said, “because we have been taken into the hearts of people all around the world.” No matter how much retired General Thein Sein will be commended for his reforms, it is Suu Kyi who still enjoys the world’s adoration. =

“Chief among Thein Sein’s goals in New York will be to persuade the U.S. to drop its remaining financial sanctions against the country, a move endorsed by Suu Kyi, who was once a staunch advocate of such economic restrictions.” Yet for Thein Sein support doesn’t just come from the U.S., “which has been cautiously appreciative of the Burmese government’s reforms. Before arriving in the States, the Burmese President made a trip to China, which has in recent years served as Burma’s chief political patron and economic benefactor.... There’s little doubt that the President’s cozying up to America is in part designed to balance Beijing’s outsize influence on Burma. Still, Thein Sein must tread cautiously when it comes to Burma’s No. 1 investor. Why else preface his U.S. visit with a China stopover? “Myanmar is in a transitional phase,” said Thein Sein at a trade fair in southern China, according to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua. “But … the policy of considering China as a sincere friend has not changed … China has provided a large amount of support and help to us for a long time and stood at Myanmar’s side even at our most difficult times. Our people will never forget this.” =

Matthew Pennington of Associated Press wrote: “The Obama administration has been anxious that Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit should not overshadow Thein Sein's. He still faces opposition with the military to the political reforms. However, Suu Kyi did meet privately with Thein Sein at his hotel room in New York. Thein Sein met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who announced the easing of a ban on imports from Myanmar - the main plank of the remaining U.S. sanctions on the country - to reward its progress toward democracy. [Source: Matthew Pennington, AP, September 27, 2012 <<]

Thein Sein Praises Aung San Suu Kyi in His United Nations Speech

In September 2012, President Thein Sein told the U.N. General Assembly that his country had taken irreversible steps toward democracy as he paid unprecedented public tribute to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, describing her as crucial to political reforms. Matthew Pennington of Associated Press wrote: “ For the first time, Myanmar's speech to the U.N.'s annual gathering of world leaders was broadcast live on state television at home. Never before had such a speech even mentioned the opposition leader, whose peaceful struggle against military rule won international admiration but only the ire of the former junta. While former general Thein Sein has orchestrated Myanmar's political opening, he has not publicly praised Suu Kyi before, nor referred to her as "Nobel laureate" as he did in his U.N. speech. "As a Myanmar citizen, I would like to congratulate her for the honors she has received in this country in recognition of her efforts for democracy," Thein Sein said. [Source: Matthew Pennington, AP, September 27, 2012 <<]

“Later speaking at the Asia Society in New York, he said Suu Kyi had played a "crucial role in the reform process." "She's been a good colleague," Thein Sein said according to the interpretation of his comments, made in Burmese language. "I believe she will continue to work with us to complete all the things we need to achieve in the country." <<

The Myanmar leader said in his U.N. speech that the country has seen "amazing changes." He said Myanmar - including its armed forces - "have been taking tangible irreversible steps in the democratic transition and reforms process." He said it has left behind centralized authoritarian rule, and now has a viable parliament with checks and balances. He said the government has reached cease-fires with 10 ethnic armed groups and would hold national-level negotiations to reach a final peace agreement to completely end hostilities. He said he did not believe there would be any reversal in Myanmar's path to democracy, providing there was stability, rule of law and economic growth. He said that the country's 60 million people "want the democratic system." <<

Thein Sein Delivers His First New Year’s Day message

In January 2013, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar’s president made his first New Year’s address to the nation as part of what he called a new campaign to communicate directly with the people. President Thein Sein reflected on the country’s much-touted progress last year and the challenges ahead in a five-minute broadcast. Thein Sein acknowledged that “our once closed and isolated society still has many aspects to reform.” He vowed “to constantly inform the people of our government’s stance and actions.”He said he chose to deliver his remarks by radio because most of Myanmar’s impoverished citizens do not have television. The 67-year-old ex-general, who had been prime minister under the ruling junta, has won international praise for spearheading reforms after a half-century of military rule. [Source: Associated Press, January 1st, 2013]

Myanmar Officials Help Mark '88 Uprising

In August 2013, the Myanmar government allowed, then attended the 25th anniversary of the “8888" anti-government protests in which thousands died. The Wall Street Journal reported: “Top government ministers were among 10,000 people gathered to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Myanmar's 1988 pro-democracy uprising, marking the first time members of the country's nominally civilian government has openly acknowledged the brutality of the recent era of military rule. Students were among 10,000 to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1988 democratic uprising, also known also as '8888,' in Yangon. Top government officials also attended. [Source: Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2013 <~>]

“Three days of commemorative activities this week included an appearance by Aung Ming, now a minister in the office of President Thein Sein, and other members of his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is comprised mostly of former generals. The commemoration is a significant step in healing one of the deepest wounds in the country's recent history. The fact the event occurred at all was telling, particularly since several activists were arrested last year before a planned ceremony for a similar anniversary, and the government and parliament are largely made up of former or current military. <~>

"Active government participation in the remembrance is more than symbolic; It is an important step on the long road to reconciliation and a process of healing," Daniel Gelfer, a Yangon-based director at Vriens & Partners, a political consultancy firm, said. The week's events, organized by the 88 Generation Group of Students—a civil society group led by those who piloted the protests 25 years ago—included a 40-minute speech by Aung San Suu Kyi. <~>

“Authorities now have also permitted the screening of a documentary that not only highlighted the military's killings of civilians, but also depicted Ms. Suu Kyi's bravery in leading pro-democracy protests after watching the uprising from the bedside of her dying mother. An art and photography exhibition was held to mark the anniversary, which included photos of students being shot by the military, and there was an interactive art installation. Attendees could visit a mock jail cell similar to those that held pro-democracy activists. <~>

“Ethnic minorities, many of them former exiles, were also allowed to return to the country for the events. "I'm very excited to join this event," said Saw Maung Maung, a captain under the armed wing of the Karen National Union, an ethnic minority army that struck a cease-fire with Myanmar's military forces last year. Though he believed the moment was a historic one, Mr. Saw Maung Maung, like many other ethnic minorities and former political prisoners, remains skeptical about the continued role of the military in political affairs. <~>

“Indeed, many people are pushing for accountability and investigations into events of 1988, which also led to the imprisonment of thousands more people and lengthy wars with ethnic minority militias. Experts say, though, that this prospect of justice remains elusive. "It is unlikely that the government might undertake any conventional form of transitional justice in the near future," said Vriens & Partner's Mr. Gelfer, noting though that events like those this week will be "building confidence among civil society groups that justice could be served a few years down the line." <~>

“Ms. Suu Kyi encouraged her supporters to focus on the country's road forward, particularly stressing the need for rule of law, rather than asserting that those responsible for the brutality need to be investigated and prosecuted. "Without rule of law and human rights, we cannot get democracy," Ms. Suu Kyi told a crowd of thousands. "It is important to move forward, while respecting the rights of all." Ms. Suu Kyi also said the events of 1988 shouldn't hold back the country's democratization process and urged activists not to be "bound to the past." <~>

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.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.