Thein Sein: Reformist or Caretaker?
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Thein Sein: Reformist or Caretaker?

By AUNG ZAW / THE IRRAWADDY Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thein Sein at a drug-burning ceremony in Kentung, in eastern Shan State (Photo: AP)

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.

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The Oppressed. Wrote:
You did a good writing from the brighter side, will you dare to write the darker side also?
By the way, what is your portion Thein Sein Administration?
(name withheld)

David Wrote:
Hey, Blah Blah Blah,

With a name like that I'm sure that when u were born, ur poor mother must have been confused, frustrated, angry, disappointed 2 have named u Blah Blah Blah.

As ur name is, u talk like a "Blah Blah Blah".

Not under standing what "Rome was not built in a day" means.

It's a figure of speech people use as an expression, so they don't have 2 explain things, like what I am doing 2 u now.

Now with a name Blah Blah Blah,u prove ur self 2 b a Blah Blah Blah person with little knowledge education. With brains with no education, its people like us who have 2 explain things 2 u, is like talking 2 brick wall.

So, please do us a favoure, go get "EDUCATED" them come bk 2 this web page & we can then have a meaningful conversation. In the mean time I wish u luck with being educated. God help the TEACHER.

I hope he doesn't Blah Blah Blah 2 u Blah Blah Blah.

I wish u the BEST.

Khin Wrote:
It is fairly obvious that General Thein Sein is acting for the big boss behind him,reform is to gain international acceptance for the military regime and to get sanctions lifted.He is almost there!

Blah Blah Blah Wrote:
@ David, ("Rome was not built in a day") WHY SHOULD WE BELIEVE YOU THIS TIME? Because these were the exact words that Bo Ne Win's government used when they took power in 1962. After 26 yrs of BSPP Rule, lives of people got worsen 10 times. Again in 1988 Bo Than Shwe took over; said these same Old Phrases ; ruled for 23 years and STILL peoples' lives are 100 times worsened.

Mg Min Nway Wrote:
After decades of enjoying power,earning enormous wealth and brutal suppression
of Human Right, Master wants to rest safely and peacefully.

Thein Sein is doing what his Master
ordered to do.

An almost complete narrative on Thein Sein proved it.

David Wrote:
U guys wanted "CHANGE". Change is taking place. It takes time. "Rome was not built in a day". It taken 50 years 2 get 2 this stage.

Be thankful & greatful that it has come. Don't start 2 "WINGE" now.

From where I stand, it seem that u guys r never satisfied with anything.

Reading all the comments on this Irrawaddy web page,no 1 is ever satisfied of what ever happens,changes,progress there is always complaints...complaints.

Why don't we hear ..YEAH....change is happening, let us play a part in it, & take pride in being a part of it.

Take pride in it when u tell ur grand children that u were part of history.

KML Wrote:
Dear Oo Maung Gyi,
The country’s debt around US$ 12 billions could become 100 times higher ( 1200 billions) if the ongoing exchange rate being materialised depending on the contracts.
I feel that debt is not a problem if the country has the active and booming economy. The current debt of US stands at more than US 14 trillions.
Human Development Index ( HDI) should be the better indicator to judge a country.

We win Wrote:
Well-done account of Predsident Thein Sein's personal story.Wheather he is a puppet of the old regime or his own self only time will tell.Remember who his Dputy is,waiting behind the curtain? The Maestro puppeteer is not that naive and stupid.

KML Wrote:
I strongly agree with “Oo Maung Gyi” that U Thein Sein is an ex-general, recently retired to become president. As any military man up to the post of General, at par with the profession, , he must have done “decisions” which may end up loss of lives. However, there is a saying that “known Devil is much better than unknown Angel”.
In the history, there were fathers of Independence, who never had a chance to run the country such as General Aunt San and Mahatma Ghandi, became Nationals Heroes for the rest of the history. On the other hands, there were fathers of Independence but did not meet every citizen’s expectations while running the country, ended up their lives in a bad situation such as Ferdinand Marcos ( Philippine ) and Sheik Mujibur Rahman( Bangladesh).
As “Soe Thane” mentioned, it is now depends on the cumulative performance and wisdom of all players including DAASK , U Thein Sein and Burmese people from all pages of politics to bring the country forwards.

Soe Thane Wrote:
Everything now depends on how well ASSK, Thein Sein and other reformers in government and Hluttlaw will work together, put aside party and political differences, and focus on economic development and peace. That means actually that all of them have to admit that they know very little about real policy and bring in new blood, not activists but people with experience in different fields, like finance and public health.

If all the old political and military people (including ASSK and president) can say they are working together, but actually give the real job to younger 30-60 year old technocrats, then we will have a chance.

Otherwise, no reason to be much more optimistic than before

Oo Maung Gyi Wrote:
Who is Thein Sein? He was ex-generals and blood tainted hand, but now to wrk as reformist for Than Shwe, because Ne Win and Than Shwe make the country bankcrupcy. Now the country is in debt of 1round 12 Billion US Dollars. By any means Thein Sein has to show human face to international community to get the country on democratic platform. China can not subsidise this debt as a selfish nation which is thinking only for the money not humanitarian cause. Now after the visit of Than Shwe's grand son to europe,
may be Than Shwe change his mind to make reforms. This is today Burma situation, but not to be trusted any of their movement. Be careful! The big cat never shows nail.

No caretaker. No reformist. But any how nonesence talker as some politician or some mid-brain writer. Some politician they never done anything for country. Just 1 pack of sand also never been carry for country. All talk none sence. Never work. Strilke for people they say. And buuly government.Thusty power. All rubbish talk. If contry shaky they happy.

And some writer any how write. Never done anything pretical. Any used word to throw people. Not this time. General Aung San era also the same. Why country not improved. Because off them. All they talk justic, fair, right, everything. They never had been done anything yet. I hate all like as people. U Thein Sein , no need this question to him. He is petroitist. Ok

KML Wrote:
In my opinion, President U Thein Sein is both “ the care taker” and “the reformist” with human face. The President seems in contrast to that of other military generals carrying intrinsic qualifications with double faces, chauvinists, xenophobic or butchers. Anyone with good heart will not only be judged by the general population of Burma and the international community, but also be in the history for infinite future. Good deed and human face must come from within, not by pressure. Without the great leader “Deng Xiaoping”, China will not be like what we are seeing today.

It is correct that “In less than one year, more political reform can be seen than the previous two decades” By saying so, the president should not take the reform process granted. Bringing back the spy chief, still bitterly hounded in the public heart, will definitely be the gravest mistake he could ever do in the future.

Thein Sein is an appointed president who wants reform in Burma. However, he is thickly entangled by the past mess of SLORC and SPDC.

Thein Sein has only two choices; go ahead of his reformist plan which could even cost his life or run like a home grown horse inside a well-fenced garden.

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