This is the first part of a three-part series. Part two is here, and part three is here.
In less than one year, the new Burmese government has taken more steps towards political reform than the previous military regime took in over two decades. The man at the forefront of this process has been President Thein Sein, but the question still remains whether he is committed to concrete and meaningful progress in Burma, or is simply the public face of the old junta in its quest to retain power under the guise of a quasi-civilian government.
It is not possible to fairly assess the situation in Burma today without acknowledging the reforms enacted under Thein Sein’s guidance since he took office in March 2011. In particular, Burma has become a much more open country in terms of what the media is allowed to report and what the pro-democracy opposition and general public are allowed to do and say.
But it is also important to remember that Burma is still far from becoming a free and democratic society, that most of the leaders of the oppressive junta which previously ruled Burma are now at the top of the new government, and that Thein Sein was the prime minister and one of the leading generals in that brutal regime.
Previous junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, a master political chess player, probably counted on the fact that Thein Sein would present a kinder and gentler political face to the world. However, it should be kept in mind that the new president was until recently a career military man who was a creation of—and is therefore beholden to—the past dictator.
Thein Sein, the son of peasants from the Irrawaddy Delta, served in the armed forces from the time he graduated from the 9th intake of the Defense Services Academy (DSA) until he resigned from his post as a full general in 2010 to become the civilian front man of the new, still military-dominated, government.
As a young officer in the 1970s, he was sent to northern Burma to join the military campaign against the Chinese-backed communist insurgency. Nyunt Swe, a senior officer who led several battles during this campaign, described the then junior general staff officer as calm and disciplined on the battlefield.
Retired Lt-Gen Chit Swe, under whom Thein Sein served in the 1980s, was similarly impressed. Thein Sein was, he said, an attentive soldier who was always willing to consider all sides of a given issue. He rarely showed his emotions, and was not aggressive, arrogant or dogmatic. He was, however, completely loyal to the armed forces.
Ko Ko Hlaing, a fellow DSA graduate, also knew Thein Sein in the days when he was still a young soldier fighting communist insurgents, and spoke of him with admiration.
“I found him to be a man of discipline and honesty. He worked very hard. Everybody in our regiment was quite impressed with him. As a soldier, he always obeyed his superiors, but at the same time he did his best to act in accordance with rules and regulations,” said Ko Ko Hlaing.
Several other army officers now in their 60s and 70s also recall the young Thein Sein as a hardworking soldier who enjoyed reading and writing short stories in his spare time.
When Burma was rocked by a nationwide uprising in 1988, Thein Sein was the commander of a battalion posted in Kalay, Sagaing Division. On one occasion, his unit captured some pro-democracy activists fleeing towards the Indian border; but in contrast to the bloody crackdown being orchestrated by his colleagues in Rangoon, he either freed the activists or handed them over to local authorities.
In 1991, Thein Sein was posted to the War Office, where he became the first general staff officer ever to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general. It was here that he had his first chance to work closely with senior military leaders, including then Gen Than Shwe and the former spy chief, Gen Khin Nyunt.
It was an interesting time to be in the War Office, as the leading generals, who were locked in an internal power struggle, vied with each other to promote loyal officers to top positions. Than Shwe’s team included Thein Sein and several other current members of Burma’s new government, including Shwe Mann, the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Khin Aung Myint, the speaker of the Upper House, and Tin Aung Myint Oo, the first vice-president.
In 1996, Thein Sein was appointed to lead the newly established Triangle Regional Command in eastern Shan State, where he oversaw Burma’s portion of the notorious Golden Triangle area bordering Laos and Thailand. During his time in Shan State, skirmishes broke out along the Thai-Burmese border, and critics said he failed to convince several armed opposition groups to enter into ceasefire agreements with the junta.