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FEATURE

Thein Sein: Reformist or Caretaker?


By AUNG ZAW / THE IRRAWADDY Tuesday, February 28, 2012


President Thein Sein, in dark suit, flanked by vice presidents Sai Mauk Kham, left, and Tin Aung Myint Oo, right, after returning from an overseas trip. At far right is Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the Burmese armed forces. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)
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This is the final part of a three-part series. Part one is here, and part two is here.

If meeting with Suu Kyi was the act that convinced many that Thein Sein was serious about at least some degree of reform, then his decision to suspend work on the China-funded Myitsone Dam project was what helped dispel the notion that he was weak and indecisive.

The decision was a slap in the face to China, Burma’s giant neighbor and traditional ally that for years had shielded the Burmese regime from UN Security Council censure debates and international condemnation. But Thein Sein was rewarded for his audacity, because the move brought him domestic accolades, served as a signal to the West that Burma wanted to balance out its relationship with China and significantly increased the momentum for his reforms.

“Despite his tender appearance outside, he is usually a man of determination,” said presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing. “After consideration, he keeps his decisions steadfastly.”

However, some critics have noted that many other Chinese-funded and controlled mega-projects, including other Irrawaddy River dam projects and a gas pipeline and railway line to China’s Yunnan Province, remained untouched. There are also skeptics who continue to argue that all of the steps Thein Sein and his government have taken were a façade meant to gain the 2014 Asean chair and get Western sanctions lifted and international investment flowing into domestic businesses controlled by the ex-junta leaders and their cronies.

From the very beginning of his administration, Thein Sein has made no secret of the fact that one of his main goals was to forge good relations with Burma’s most vocal international critic, the US. From that point of view, his Myitsone gambit worked brilliantly to convince Washington that not only was he capable of making a break with the past, but also that he had something to offer.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Zaw Htay, the director of the president's office, made it clear that the Myitsone decision was not just about environmental concerns or the “will of the people,” as Thein Sein had said when he announced the suspension of the project.

“My president’s cancellation of the Beijing-backed Myitsone Dam signaled to the world what he stands for,” wrote Zaw Htay. “If the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region.”

He added: “What the West must realize is that in today’s geopolitical situation, particularly given the rise of China, it needs Myanmar.”

By playing the China card so effectively—and at the same time demonstrating to China that Burma couldn't be taken for granted—Thein Sein greatly strengthened his hand, albeit at considerable risk to a relationship that remains crucial to Burma's future and, possibly, his own hold on power.

Even as he signaled a desire to move Burma away from its excessive dependence on Beijing, Thein Sein was careful to give China pride of place among the country's strategic partners. China was his first destination after coming into office, followed by India.

He also moved to cement ties with the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), hoping to use the grouping to enhance the legitimacy of his government, which after all owed its existence to an election widely dismissed as neither free nor fair.

In November, Thein Sein did in fact convince Asean to grant Burma its 2014 chair, and on the heels of that decision US President Barack Obama announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would become the first top US diplomat to visit Burma in over 50 years. But while her visit itself gave the new government another injection of legitimacy, Clinton held the line and said that sanctions would not be lifted until further reforms were made.

That tough stance was later rewarded with the release of hundreds of political prisoners—a long-time demand of Washington and the West. On Jan. 13, some of Burma's most famous dissidents, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Gambira, were freed in yet another signal that Thein Sein was listening to his critics, both at home and overseas.

But there have also been signs that he is now facing real opposition from other quarters. Despite his public call on the Burmese military to end its offensive in Kachin State, attacks on the Kachin Independence Army continue to this day.



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A.M.O Wrote:
02/03/2012
Well, Boy !

As commented earlier - If & Only If Reforms really go through, Shall we throw the lights on Singapore PM Lee's comments as: -

" xxxx... xxx... (for Senior Gen Than Shwe).... Where do I go ! Which jail will I be in ! What about my jewels ! And my billions, my family & my children !"

So shall we put "caretaker' a polite word for (Gen) U Thein Sein; rather we would call him a 'guard' at the gate of Sr Gen Than Shwe, Hm !

By the way could "Irrawaddy" explain why Sr Gen Than Shwe is still sticking to Naypyidaw even after retirement. Does he need a security guard posted on Thein Sein's account (public account) ?

Hnin Wint Naing Wrote:
01/03/2012
Wars cannot be avoided but it will be very wrong of us to blame the president alone for continuing the ethnic conflicts along the border and elsewhere. In the end, he is no longer a member of the military but the civilian government convincing the public with the available and limited power he gained with the 2010 general election. What we need to concentrate right now is the upcoming by election to put all our desirable representatives into the hut taw (senate), voicing out what we need and want through those channels of personnels. Thus, vote,

timothy Wrote:
01/03/2012
Thanks again Ko Aung Zaw.

No one can deny that Mr Thein Sein had won the trust of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr Barek Obama of America. It seems the light is flickering at the end of the long dark tunnel.

I can only have guarded optimism as the military will find it very difficult to break free from the past excesses, and irregularities.

I hope Mr Thein Sein will stick to his committed plans, join hands with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and America and in case the hard-liners makes the U-turn, he will join the people in revolution, Plan B.

Oo Maung Gyi Wrote:
29/02/2012
"Reforms" Reforms can not works just talking there must be action. Action in what way, to benefits the peoples of Burma and the country in general. Still there are many political prisoners staying in various jail. Kachin fighters are having war with tatmadaw, why can not stop now. Ethnic problems should solve by now. Country can not progress without having peace through out the country. Must create trust between government, peoples and ethnic groups. One option is there has to wait till by-election when ASSK sit in parliament the situation can hope to change, that's also depend on tatmadaw cooperation is vital important.

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